Monday, October 8, 2007

Not Quite Dead

Chris Vognar's movie column on the revival of the Western, in yesterday's Dallas Morning News, got me thinking about western novels.

It seems that cultural taste makers have been trying to drive those last few nails in the Western's coffin for at least the past three decades. I've long assumed that the themes and settings of the Nineteenth and early Twentienth Century American West simply don't resonate with modern Manhattan and West Coast sensibilities. They pronounce the Western dead because they have no interest in it. Therefore it nearly dies. Bookstores stock only a few Louie L'Amour and Matt Braun titles, if they stock westerns at all. One editor told me that westerns are books written "by old men for old men." Never mind that elderly men actually read and are more likley to have disposable income (not having spent it on cars and electronics) than the coveted 18-35 crowd. Sometimes, I get the feeling that the literary world is a bit like the high-fashion business.

No doubt changing tastes and a glut of horrible novels and movies in the 1950s and 1960s helped bring about the Western's decline. Nowadays, few people fully embrace the old frontier triumphalism - at least in its most simplistic forms. I suspect that urbanization plays a role too. Mountain men, buffalo hunting, and Comanche horsemanship are just too far removed from modern reality. (Unlike, say, Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter.)

Then along come Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma and Brad Pitt in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Sure enough, the American public can work up an interest in Western movies, thanks to modern marketing, our celebrity culture, and - let's not forget -great stories.

So why not good, well-marketed novels?

I'll admit that I have a stake. I've written two novels that can be called Westerns in that they're both set in Nineteenth Century Texas. I certainly wouldn't call them traditional Westerns. (One academic reviewer accused me of "postmodern grotesquery." I wasn't sure whether to be offended or flattered.) New acquaintances of my generation often ask me about my novels, and I do my best to describe them. Often as not, they'll say something like, "Oh, I don't read Westerns, but I'll buy one for my Dad. He loves them."

Thank heaven for Dads. Long may they live!


Brad Curtis said...

I think there are two primary reasons that Western novels are no longer popular. First there are simply fewer readers of novels today. A larger portion of our population are avid TV viewers - not book readers. The second reason is that Westerns have the reputation, often deserved, of being rather dry. Simple plot, simple characters, etc.

"The Callings" and "Blood Kin" are excellent examples of what the twenty-first century version of the Western novel can be.

Henry Chappell said...

Thanks for your kind words, Brad. No doubt about it, reading - and especially the reading of novels - is declining. Even the most successful agents will tell you that novels are a tough sell nowadays.

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

The 3:10 to Yuma remake was fabulous.

Should we really be sad that any sort of formulaic cookie cutter art fades? Westerns definitely still exist in varying forms and the good ones sometimes do well. Wouldn't you say Cormac McCarthy does modern westerns?

Chas S. Clifton said...

One word, Henry: vampires. You need vampires. Vampires are hot. There is even a genre category on Amazon called "new vamp," featuring the works of Charlaine Harris (Louisiana), Karen Chance, and others.

This online graphic novel might also be helpful!

Rebecca K. O'Connor said...

Vampire cowboys in a decaying gold forsaken old west. OMG I can barely contain myself. Henry if you won't write it...I will!!

Aaron said...

What are the names of your your novels? I'm interested in hearing more about them.

Henry Chappell said...

Rebecca, I don't think we should mourn the passing of a formulaic form. No doubt the lack of interest in the genre is in large part a result of the glut of bad novels and movies in the 50s and 60s. What bothers me is that aversion to western novels of any kind - unless they're written by Larry McMurtry or Cormac McCarthy - has become standard among New York editors and agents. They say they're looking for the next Larry McMurtry, but they'll have a hard time finding him as long as they refuse to read anyting that might be called a western novel.

Chas, thanks for the tip. I can always count on you for solid literary advice. I was about to ruin my career with a tale about a young cowboy wizard - Jake Water and the Fiery Brand.

On second thought, Rebecca, feel to run with the vampire thing. I'm all about helping my fellow writers.

Aaron, I appreciate your interest. You can find out more at my website - - or you can just check out the titles on Amazon.