Friday, January 11, 2019

The Strange Journey of the Western Genre

Television Westerns are undergoing a surge of popularity on certain cable TV channels. You can find them on INSP, Grit, Encore Westerns and many other channels. In addition, some channels brag about having John Wayne weekends where they show some of the most popular John Wayne Westerns. Usually they include ‘The Searchers’ or at least ‘The Sons of Katie Elder.’

Westerns in novel and short-story form started in 1860 with the first dime novels. These were contemporary stories of events in the Western states of the US— often featuring real-life Western men who’d made news either as outlaws or lawmen. 

The intended audience— men back East— were themselves sons or grandsons of the pioneers of their own regions. They had their own family and local pioneering stories about when their communities were first settled. They liked to hear about the same process going on further West. Both dime novels and Wild West shows created the myth of the West, of heroes and outlaws and larger-than-life men who were a bit of both.

A little later, pulp magazines got started. There were Western pulps, science-fiction pulps, mystery pulps, love story pulps…. Some of the stories in all categories were not well written, but others were gems that started their authors on the road to literary success. 

Westerns were beloved, but they also got a reputation of being shoot-‘em-up stories with poor characterization. Perhaps because mystery and science fiction pulp authors loved to use Western authors as a bad example.

The Western genre grew because of men who were good writers, and who also were willing to research the truth about the historic West. Louis L’Amour, one of the most highly popular of Western writers, had experience of life in the West himself— and he had shelves of Western history books as well. And he understood the mind of the common working man— fellows who didn’t read fiction for entertainment as a general rule— well enough to win such men over not only to his own novels, but to reading as a pastime. To this day, Louis L’Amour books are popular in the secondhand market, and in reprint. One might mention also that Louis L’Amour’s first book was of his own poetry, which included some fine sonnets. 

During my own childhood, Western television shows were common, though I thought I didn’t like Westerns because I hated ‘Gunsmoke.’ I still don’t care for Gunsmoke, though I watch Lawman, Wagon Train, Have Gun Will Travel,  and some of the other now-available shows. I also like Maverick, at least when James Garner is in it.

In novel form, Westerns are also still available. Most of the best are the fruit of serious historical research. There are also novels of the contemporary West. And, unfortunately, Western ‘romances’ which are often just a renaming of Western smut, written for a female audience. 

There are also cross-genre Westerns and ‘weird Westerns’ with zombies, witches and talking unicorns. And, of course, the movie Cowboys & Aliens. They may bow to modern political correctness by featuring modern-feminist women in the 1870s, and similarly out-of-place Black militants and political-activist Indians. 

I don’t care much for that myself. My own current Western WIP— though it’s weird, with space aliens stopping the Civil War, and lizard-alien cowboys— is going to allow the characters to be people of their own time. Admittedly a time that was different from the historical one, because of the alien thing. 

The greatest value of the Western genre is that the male persons in a Western story are often still allowed to be manly men. They don’t have to bow down to the opinions of feminist women, and they don’t have to wear dresses or show off a feminine side. They can just be men, and other characters male and female don’t judge them harshly for it. Not that a Western novel hero would give a hoot about what other folks thought of him. He’d live by his own code, a Western code, and do what was right even if other folk wanted to shoot him over it.


Jerome Colburn said...

What are your objections to Gunsmoke? What do you think of Bonanza?

Nissa Annakindt said...

I just never enjoyed Gunsmoke. Not sure why. I didn't watch Bonanza years ago, but now it's on INSP just after Little House on the Prairie, and I'm amazed at how similar those shows are sometimes. I often watch Bonanza.