Yesterday on Ed Gorman’s blog, Ed published an excerpt from a blog post by novelist Richard S. Wheeler. You can check out Ed’s blog here, if you haven’t seen it already, and Wheeler’s full post is here.
I’ve known Dick Wheeler for 25 years, like him a great deal personally, and admire him as a writer. I’ve read a number of his books and every one of them was excellent. But that doesn’t keep me from being in complete disagreement with him on this issue.
His main point, as I see it, is that the traditional Western novel is dead, and good riddance. He says:
Even as the traditional western story has all but vanished, a new regional literature has replaced it. That is all to the good. The sooner the genre western vanishes, the better. The world has had its fill of crack-brained males wandering through unsettled country butchering one another.
To address these two points in order:
It’s simply not true that the traditional western story has all but vanished. While fewer publishers have Western lines these days, they still exist. Pinnacle, Berkley, Signet, and Leisure all have robust Western lines publishing multiple new titles every month. Five Star and Avalon in the U.S. and Robert Hale in England still publish multiple new titles every month aimed at the library markets, as do several large print publishers. Overall, several hundred new Western novels continue to be published every year. No, sales aren’t as good as they once were. Advances are lower. But here’s the important thing about that: it’s just as true in almost every other genre. The numbers for all of mid-list publishing have dropped in the past twenty years. The typical mass-market paperback original Western sells just as well as the typical mass-market paperback original mystery or science-fiction or horror novel. This isn’t a matter of perception, it’s a matter of numbers, and they don’t lie.
Where perception comes in is that mysteries and science-fiction and horror have their big success stories, the authors in those genres whose books regularly crack the bestseller lists, so they’re still perceived as successful genres. Westerns don’t have that “big name” anymore since Louis L’Amour died. Robert B. Parker’s Westerns have been successful, but only because he was Robert B. Parker and his mystery readers followed him over to the Westerns. However, even that perception isn’t strictly true. More than two dozen William W. Johnstone Westerns have appeared on the USA Today bestseller list in recent years, and earlier this year one of them was on the New York Times bestseller list.
Moving on to the description of traditional Western novels as “crack-brained males wandering through unsettled country butchering one another” . . . has this ever been true about the vast majority of Western fiction? Not based on what I’ve read. Certainly, there have been bad Western novels published, but most of the ones I’ve read over the years – and that’s a lot – featured well-rounded characters, moral and psychological complexity, and even some social commentary. That was true in the pulp era, and it’s still true today.
I consider it a shame that Westerns have to be defended. I feel the same way when I hear or read an attack on romances or horror novels or noir or cozy mysteries. Here’s what it all boils down to for me: It’s all just words on paper. No genre is inherently better or worse than any other genre (which includes literary fiction). Yes, there are genre conventions. A good writer can work within those conventions and still produce excellent work. I’m saddened, though, that this latest attack on traditional Westerns comes from someone within our own community. I know that Dick Wheeler is sincere in his complaints – he’s been making them for a long time – but I think he’s wrong. I hope the readers do, too.