Monday, May 31, 2010

In Defense of Westerns

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.

24 comments:

larry gebert said...

Great blog James im in total agreement and a little shocked at Wheelers comments.

Charles Gramlich said...

I'll have to go over and read Wheeler's comments. His basic premise is just mostly remakably silly, though. "Crack Brained males?" What kind of goofiness is that? The problem is, I bet, that many westerns uphold a fairly traditional male role, which is appropriate for the time in which they are set, but which irritates people who are so mired in modern thought patterns that they can't step outside of them to see that the world hasn't always been the way it is now, and that it will be different again in the future. I've never read Wheeler, but if that's what he thinks I never will. I can't imagine I could tolerate his apparently blind mindset.

Todd Mason said...

Well, yes, you should read Wheeler's last several posts. I took him to be referring to bad ahistorical, actually "generic" in every sense, westerns that were not indicative of the common mindset then Or now, but of someone's crackbrained fantasies of walking around with a gun at the ready for shootouts at least every hour. Not much life expectancy in that, nor much potential for settling in.

But also, as I asked at Ed's post and indirectly at Wheeler's, are there really all that many like that published any longer?

Definitely read his posts about publishing.

I wouldn't've guessed several hundred titles are still getting published every year, but I depend on the big box stores for my sense of such things, and they, of course, aren't ordering that much (particularly not in the Philadelphia area, and not as much of anything as they used to...when I visit my folks in Northern Virginia, the Borders nearest them has a rather more robust western section, and of course segregates all the western writers not tagged as western writers, from Carol Emshwiller to Larry McMurtry, in other sections...while B&N has never had western or horror sections since I've been patronizing them).

Steve M said...

Well said James.

I seen Wheelers comments before and do wonder why he's constantly putting down the western.

RJR said...

Nice job, James. I've known Dick for a long time, haven't seen him in many years, though. I think he's just holed up in the mountains, writing ABOUT writing instead of writing.

RJR

Anonymous said...

The traditional western could not have a greater champion than you, James. And you're right, why should a form that's lasted more than 100 yrs need defending against one grumpy old man? I remember Westlake saying the same thing about private eye stories some 25 yrs. ago. As for Wheeler, I think we all just have to feel sorry for the old guy. I'll take your word for what a great writer he is. The general perception is that he's disillusioned and bitter because his writing career hit a roadblock, so now he has to lash out. Sort of like Avallone toward the final days. It's pathetic to see a professional melt down like this in public with rants that really just break down to, "I can't sell my novels anymore so the world sucks." I'm glad that guys like Reasoner, Randisi, Gorman, etc. are keeping alive the traditional western. Thanks, guys. Wheeler, get a life.

--Stephen Mertz

Gonzalo B said...

Actually, Richard Wheeler's novels are still selling and he's still publishing. One thing is to disagree with his opinion as James does and something completely different is calling him a "grumpy old guy" whose career hit a road block. According to whom? I read his novels regularly (as well as traditional Westerns and "literary" fiction) and he's definitely one of the best writers in the field (and this is not just my opinion, but that of many of his peers). I think we should keep things in perspective here. We can disagree with his bleak outlook for the genre but there's no need to question his credentials or talent (especially if you haven't even read him). While I agree with him that there's a lot of crud being published in the genre (Johnstone's cheesy and cliched novels, for example) I don't think that's exclusive to Westerns. One of my favorite genres, noir, is also filled with cliched characters and phony tough guys but that doesn't mean we should want its demise or that we can't appreciate the good work being done in the field. Finally, if there's anything Richard Wheeler's novels can NOT be criticized for is that they are told from a modern point of view. I think you'll hardly find a Western writer whose stories and characters are more authentic, well-researched, and steeped in the times they are set in.

Gonzalo B said...

And one more thing: Actually, if you read Richard Wheeler's recent posts, you'll actually see how he criticizes those authors that say: "I can't sell my novels anymore so the world sucks." He's definitely not rationalizing any alleged failure. Here's a question: Did anyone lash at Westlake or insinuate his best days were behind him because of his take on PI fiction?

Frank Loose said...

Todd ... Don't know if it is a regional bias or not, but the B&Ns in Atlanta area each have a western section, as well as horror. Granted, it is only about four shelves compared to several isles in a Mystery section. But, i imagine the ratio has been lopsided for a long time.

Reading a declaration that the Western is dead, I'm reminded of something i read about twenty years ago. I wish i could remember the source, but i can't. At any rate, the writer was presenting the history of mystery fiction and it's different types. In discussing the detective/p.i. genre, he declared the "first-person p.i. story" dead, having run it's course. A writer of those type stories would no longer find a publisher. The last time i looked (this morning!) writers, publishing houses and readers were still engaged in private eye fiction.

So, hearing someone declare the Western or any genre dead, sounds ludicrous to me.

larrygebert said...

I hate to be put in the position of having to defend a western author or series. but Gonzalo B statement about Johnstones "cheesy and cliched novels" does not ring true with me,The Sidewinder series is a good read along with the Preacher books and i thought The Family Jensen book was also good,some of the earlier books might not have been up to snuff,but generaly ok.

Randy Johnson said...

I'm with Larry. Gonzalo maybe should read some of the Johnstone novels being published today before he declares them crap. I think theuy are much better than the late Mr. johnstone's take on his characters.

David Cranmer said...

"No genre is inherently better or worse than any other genre (which includes literary fiction)." That is spot on and it's unfortunate some folks don't understand that or refuse to accept it.

Gonzalo B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gonzalo B said...

Saying that the ghostwritten Johnstone titles are his best somewhat proves my point. Then again, it's just a matter of personal taste and I don't mean to insult anyone who enjoys his books. I don't think the average Johnstone title on the shelves compares favorably to the average Longarm, Trailsman or Gunsmith. I've never understood why he seems to be more succesful than other authors who publish regularly under their own names such as Johnny Boggs or Peter Brandvold. I'd love to try some of the new Johnstone titles, but I don't know who the real writers are and wouldn't know where to begin. I'll eventually get around to it.

As for declaring a genre dead, I don't know if Richard Wheeler did that. He said he wished the genre Western would disappear, which is different. People might not like what he said, but he was never so presumptuous as to make such a definite statement.

Richard Robinson said...

This reminds me a lot of a long, vociferous, unhappy argument occurring a few years ago, the gist of which was "the P.I. novel is dead, it no longer has a place in genre writing, readers don't want such nooks any more... etc." You get the idea. It brought a lot of people out of some assumptions, which was probably good, and was never decided, of course, and never will be. I talked to one of the couple people who initially made the argument a year or so ago and he said "I wish I'd never said a damn thing."

I imagine this will blow over too, it's just one person's opinion when you get right down to it.

Richard Prosch said...

Nice post, James. Thank you!

Cap'n Bob Napier said...

I'm disheartened that Wheeler's statements will be used to bolster the position of those who'd like to see the western die. I've read a lot of his books and love his work and wish he'd stick with fiction and leave the doom saying be.

Randy Johnson said...

Gonzalo B, likely the same authors do the Johnstone titles as the ones that do the Longarm, Trailsman, or Gunsmith books that you tout as being better. I've never read a Gunsmith, but have some in both other series, and I can tell you they are as good.

And I don't want to rag on Mr. Wheeler's books as I've enjoyed a good many of them as well.

Chap O'Keefe said...

The speed and volume of comment here reassures me that Mr Wheeler's views are not only contestable but will be contested. True, most of the names are the ones I come across regularly at the ever-swelling number of western-related blogs. But the hope is that we and the readers we might influence via the Net can give the genre western a future. Our colleague David Whitehead has just written a very pertinent article, "Putting Imagination in the Saddle", for the latest Black Horse Extra at www.blackhorsewesterns.com. And in the previous edition of the Extra, in "Justice and the Western", I had occasion to challenge a Robert Hale writer who told us at his personal website that he was moving on to "better" things while offering his "formula" for westerns, which he called "fiction writing for dummies." With friends like these, does the genre need enemies?

Gonzalo B said...

Randy,

I’ve only read some of the old Johnstone titles (including a horror novel) which I’m sure he wrote since he was alive when they were published. I don’t know about the ghostwritten ones but if they’re authored by the same people doing Longarm and Trailsman, I’d definitely give those a try.

bobv451 said...

The death of the western is less likely to come from content than it is physical form. Print publishers are a dying breed and when e-books hit 25% of sales, publishers' business model collapses.

I don't see western readers making the shift to e-readers, and that's a pity. Electronic publishing can return us to those thrilling days of yesteryear with illustrations (pulp or photo) and broaden the field. What could be a rejuvenated field will be pinched off--and it's not because of "crack brained males," whatever that was supposed to mean.

Laurie Powers said...

Forgive me - i just learned of this debate today through Sandra Seaman's post. After reading through some of Mr. Wheeler's posts, I found it interesting that he is still closely connected to many in the WWA, which has been changing over the years, as we all know, to support a different type of Western. Still, I wonder how many people in the WWA would be supporting Mr. Wheeler's assumptions. Like Rick said a few posts up, it sounds like this is just one voice in the wilderness. If the Western is so dead, why would so many movies and remakes be on the table right now? Certainly he has a right to his opinion, but let's take it for what it is - one voice - and get on with our work of writing them, reading them and reviewing them.

Ron Scheer said...

Wheeler made an observation in a recent post that he felt a cultural sea-change taking place when he saw High Plains Drifter. He says he walked out afterward having been unable to identify with any of the characters, including Eastwood's.

This seems to be a touchstone of great storytelling for him, and it underlies his comment about "crack-brained males" who populate western fiction - intent on mayhem and violence to such a degree that it's impossible to care about them.

And it's a sign of a more general cultural decadence, he says. This attraction to violence and noise in the popular arts is a complaint he has about the younger generation. The traditional western I think he's writing about softens its violence with a kind of humanity, usually found in the hero. He argues that the new western lacks this and to that extent he'd like to see the western disappear.

Hoping all that doesn't make me sound too much like an academic. -R

jeety said...
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