“I have often wondered why we don’t have greater Western stories than we do. Great stories are there waiting to be dug out. There are hundreds of people far more worthy than the notorious Billy the Kid (upon whom the spotlight has fallen for years), unknown outside of their home neighborhood, robust people living in a raw and virile land, a land that is huge and beautiful and rich in material wealth. There’s the challenge and perhaps that is the difficulty. The West was too big to be written about and bound between two hard covers.” —Wayne D. Overholser,
Why I read, write, and review Westerns
As a literary and film art form, the Western’s time has passed. And yet… there remains a small number of dedicated western fans who remain loyal to this most American of all art forms. I count myself as a proud member of this anachronistic remnant.
An article awhile back in Grantland caught my eye, “Dystopia Is the New Western.” Fans of Western fiction, and even more so, those who dabble in writing it, are forced at times to ask two questions: What has happened to the Western? And, does it have a future?
America can boast of inventing a number of essential “art” forms: the Blues and Jazz; bourbon; baseball and basketball; and the Western which gave birth to Hard-Boiled Fiction.
The Western, and its themes of “man (human) vs. wilderness,” rugged individualism, and the essential corruption of big business is in the DNA of the American psyche. It is our definitive and defining myth.
And yet, the western has all but gone away. And in its place… dystopia.
I have been working my way through West of Everything by Jane Tompkins. It is a “feminist” look at Westerns by someone who loves them. It is also the best book about Westerns and popular culture I have ever read.
To quote the book’s summary at Amazon, Tomkins believes that westerns were born out of:
a reaction against popular women’s novels and women’s invasion of the public sphere [in the late 19th Century]. With Westerns, men were reclaiming cultural territory, countering the inwardness, spirituality, and domesticity of the sentimental writers, with a rough and tumble, secular, man-centered world.
She also makes the convincing case that for men, and for women too, born roughly between the 1920s and 1960s, the Western more than anything else shaped our view of masculinity. I know for myself that that is most certainly true.
And yet I need to be honest with myself as well. While I know that the view of masculinity depicted in Westerns is not realistic and is often unhealthy, it is a view of masculinity I do not want to let go.
And so that is why I do not want to let go of Westerns. Why I read them even though the writing is often terrible. Why I want to write them. Why I want them to be better written than they are. Why I pop in a John Wayne DVD whenever life seems confusing and pointless. Why I still think the Western, along with Jazz, is the most American of all art forms.
And when we have totally lost both the Western and Jazz what will be left? Dystopia.
My Four Categories for Westerns
The best Westerns are those with real western landscapes and real western people. This is Larry McMurtry and Elmer Kelton.
A mythic/noir landscape peopled with archetypal characters. The tone is hardboiled and dark. The best practitioners of this in the short story form are (interestingly) both from Michigan: H.A. De Rosso and Elmore Leonard. This is the Western as high-noir art. It is my favorite kind of Western.
Louis L’Amour created real western landscapes peopled by cardboard characters. The women in these kinds of Westerns are particularly two-dimensional yet there always seems to be a “romance” of some kind to bog down the plot. This is my least favorite kind of Western.
This kind of Western is true genre fiction combining cardboard landscapes and cardboard characters in familiar plots. The inevitable result is predictably flat.
Western Reviews at ClimbingSky
- H.A. De Rosso
- Will Henry
- Wayne Overholser
- Lewis B. Patten
- Les Savage, Jr.
- Harry Whittington
- Everything Else
Some Links to Western Related Sites
- Black Horse Express
- Buddies in the Saddle
- Western Fiction Review
- Western Fictioneers
- Western Writers of America
Links to my own Western Stories
- The Best of Frontier Tales, Volume Three: Available Here
- “Box Canyon” at The Western Online
- “Cottonwood Death” at Frontier Tales
- “Montana is Big” at The Western Online
- “Better Tombstones” September 2016 Frontier Tales
And finally… some great Western covers