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!