Saturday, May 7, 2011

Why Westerns?

Why do I write westerns?

The western story, which originated in the nickel and dime pulp magazines of the late 1800s and flourished for a remarkable period from 1925 through the early 1960s. The western came of age as a pulp magazine and then as a paperback. The paperback market began to dry up in the 1970s as the celluloid western was replaced by the profitable science fiction extravaganzas. With the exception of books by Louis L’Amour, the western story was deemed a thing of the past. Well, not exactly. Although many knowledgeable people will tell you the western was effectively dead by 1980, I’m here to tell you the western never died. It’s been mishandled by the publishing industry, misunderstood by the public, and often ignored by certain factions of the writing community who view such stories as inferior. But it’s not dead.

Chief among the western’s allure was the pulp magazine’s cover. The colors were always vibrant and the landscape could be as breathtaking as a photograph or as simple as a comic book illustration. But the American west was (and remains) exotic. The vastness of the land itself and the perils of the wilderness called out to the armchair explorers and daydreaming heroes who were swept away by the galloping black stallions and swarthy gunmen who populated this landscape with blazing six-shooters and that determined ferocity painted into their eyes. This image, coupled with that of actors like William Boyd, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, was enough to drive the imagination of several generations who yearned to become like the heroes they saw on the silver screen or read about in magazines.

Then there are the stories themselves. Dismissed as mere “entertainments” by critics, the pulps told simple stories in masculine prose. Consider this bit from Gunman Brand by Thomas Thompson and published in the October 1951 issue of Zane Grey’s Western Magazine:

“The old habit that he had tried to break dropped his hand to the gun on his hip and then he drew his hand away, opening and closing it, hating that involuntary movement. The fastest draw in Oregon. He had been proud of that once. Hellishly proud. And it was hell how a dead man’s eyes could show you what an empty thing was that kind of pride.”

The prose gets right to the heart of the matter. It was the action that readers desired, both on the screen and on the page. The reliance on action to move the story forward is often cited as the principal reason for the western’s decline. I disagree. These writers and filmmakers were providing the audience what they craved. There was never any intimation that they were doing anything other than creating a simple entertainment. Yet it’s that very simplicity that is both reviled by critics and hungered for by audiences. Yes, it’s true that often a depth of characterization was sacrificed in favor of an extended shoot-out. Plots were always variations on good versus evil, pursuit and reconciliation. The stories sometimes trudged along as faithfully as the horses chewing their oats. Indeed, “Oaters” became a derogatory term used to describe westerns.

And the fun we had reading these stories played itself out on those summer days of yesteryear when we “played cowboy” on our lawns or in the parks, banging away at each other with our cap guns, drawling dialogue we’d heard at the movies, and reliving the best action-packed moments from the pulps with breathless glee. It was a time when a kid might dutifully place his cowboy hat on his head, strap on his plastic holster and cap gun, and announce, “Mom, I’m going next door to play cowboy with my friends.” And the great showdowns would begin. Gunfights in Dodge City were reenacted on suburban streets or urban back-alleys, the BAM! BAM! of a cap gun as common on summer days as the sound of a lawn mower. We killed each other mercilessly, guns popping, buckets of imaginary blood stained our lawns. Yet remarkably, none of us grew up to be criminals.

Such playtime activities are frowned upon with disapproval today by the regiments of cell-phone wielding soccer moms and self-righteous purveyors of political correctness who strive so fervently to take away all of our fun.

Horses, guns and Stetsons. Bank robberies, train robberies, stagecoach hold-ups, cattle drives, homesteaders versus cattleman, Texas Rangers, and wagon trains under attack by Indians. The elements and images are as varied as the western vista itself, alive with the American experience. These are tales of love and madness, exploration and courage, wars and cattle drives. The western is America’s own genre, a genre that has come to define the country and its people. The publishers will tell you the market is small. The bookstore managers will tell you the market is small. But the reading public is another matter. I maintain the market – you readers – are alive and well.

Sure, it’s an uphill battle. The books rarely get reviewed, and the cynicism on the Internet (not to mention the apathy and egotism) makes promoting any book a process fraught with peril. But I endure, and I keep at it. And I am doubly-blessed when someone reads it and likes it. So I sit here in my den surrounded by tons of books, guns, Stetsons and dreams…and I write on……

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