The most important datum about Western fiction is that it is at the absolute bottom of the literary heap, somewhere below pornography. English professors would cavil at calling Westerns literature; they prefer to categorize Westerns as subliterature, or entertainment.
Few, if any, educated people read Westerns. The higher the cultural and academic attainments of the reader, the less likely he will be to crack one open. He will read other category fiction, such as mysteries or science fiction, without embarrassment. But you will never catch him reading Westerns. Westerns sell least well in the upper Midwest and East, the areas with the largest numbers of college-educated people. They sell best across the South and in the Rocky Mountain states, where tastes are the most primitive. They sell around military bases, a sure sign that they appeal to the semiliterate. It is known also that Westerns appeal most to graying males, yeoman blue-collar types who have never gone beyond high school, allegedly the least imaginative and progressive elements in society.
Because Westerns are not considered significant literature, they are not usually reviewed. Most newspaper editors of the book page have never assigned a category Western for review. The Library Journal and Kirkus review a few hardback Westerns for the edification of librarians, but that is about the extent of attention paid to category Western fiction. You will find nothing about Westerns or those who write them in book news columns. You will not see Western authors on TV or radio talk shows. Western authors are never lionized at parties, and acquire no groupies, fans, or imitators. You will not find Western authors at the National Book Awards. They are never asked to lecture at great universities and neither do they become adjunct professors. Here and there you’ll find college courses on Western fiction, but it usually turns out that the professor didn’t mean that kind of Western fiction; he meant Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey and Tom McGuane and James Welch and Louise Erdrich. You will rarely see Western novels or authors come under academic or critical scrutiny, except to condemn them.
This is not the case in more respectable categories. Mystery authors are much acclaimed, even among literary professors and critics. People like Rex Stout, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, or John MacDonald are regularly studied, admired, analyzed, and acknowledged to be serious and gifted novelists. More recently Elmore Leonard has been accorded that status—but not for the several excellent Westerns he wrote before turning to mysteries. Nothing illustrates the difference in attitude better than encyclopedia entries. The New Columbia Encyclopedia, for example, has entries on Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and Rex Stout, but not one for John MacDonald. When it comes to Western writers, things are different: there is a patronizing entry on Zane Grey, and one for Conrad Richter, and that’s it. There is no entry for Pulitzer Prize-winner A.B. Guthrie Jr., Dorothy Johnson, Max Brand (Frederick Faust), Luke Short (Frederick Glidden), Ernest Haycox, Walter von Tilberg Clark, William McLeod Raine, Will Henry (Henry Allen), Jack Schaefer, or Louis L’Amour. One must ask: are all these people unworthy of recognition, or is it simply their misfortune to have written in a field that has always been patronized by critics and professors?
In recent years academic leftists have begun to assail category Western fiction. For example, English Professor William Kittredge of the University of Montana regularly attacks Westerns as being racist, sexist, and imperialist, and makes no bones about his hope that Westerns will vanish forever. His views are replicated by, roughly, the membership of the Modern Language Association. They associate Westerns with a frontier period when white men behaved shamefully: exterminating Indians, ruining the land, wiping out buffalo, demolishing the fragile ecology of the West, all from greed. Moreover, they associate Westerns with false and romantic views of human nature, in which self-reliant people achieve their goals, and such virtues as courage, loyalty, and integrity really count. Such people, many of them in the publishing industry itself, regularly pronounce the death of Westerns, and one detects malice in the threnody: Westerns obstruct the proper understanding of a guilty, racist, voracious white America and delude people into supposing they control their own destinies.
In addition to all these burdens. Westerns suffer from an image fixation. Almost anyone can tell you what a Western is: it’s a story that involves a lot of horseback riding and six-gun fights; a story in which the characters are cardboard, especially the women; a story full of action and short on theme; a story in which the hero will say “Yup,” and “No, Ma’am” to a schoolmarm heroine and then ride off into the sunset; a story in which the author does not deal seriously with the human condition, but seeks merely to entertain; a story that presumes the superiority of white civilization and the inferiority of Indian or Hispanic culture. Everyone knows this; it’s a given, and that is why intelligent and educated and sensitive people don’t read Westerns and why professors condemn them.
But what everyone “knows” really isn’t accurate. The majority of modern Westerns bears little relationship to any of these cliches and assumptions. No other genre is so beset by wrong preconceptions, held by people who have no intention of ever finding out whether their notions are accurate.
Thus, the environment in which Western fiction is produced is largely arid. People on the left dislike Westerns for ideological reasons, while people on the right ignore them as trash literature fashioned by pulp writers. People in all walks of life think of them as horse opera or shoot-em-ups. Then add to that the universal scorn or indifference of academics and critics and the pop press (you don’t see Western authors featured in People magazine or the Sunday newspaper supplements or the checkout counter tabloids).
Miraculously, Westerns refuse to die, even when the odds are as long as they are. Each month, the drugstore paperback racks acquire a gaudy collection of new titles. Each month several hardcover publishers of Westerns offer more of their wares to librarians. People are buying them even without the prompting of publicity, critical acclaim, or social approval. In spite of the indifference and hostility. Westerns flourish, and the worse the environment, the more it prospers.
How can that be? The most obvious reason is that there exists in the United States a large pool of literate people, many of them ardent readers, who are utterly indifferent to fad and fashion, hype, media blitzes, academic and ideological vogues, and politics. These people are not finding the type of storytelling they enjoy in mainstream literature and turn instead to category novels, especially those in which traditional moral and ethical values inform the story. They make up their own minds about what to read, and are therefore relatively immune to the blandishments of ideologues. For them. Westerns speak to what is possible and exciting and grand in human nature; to the heroic. These people are not necessarily old, not necessarily traditional, but simply independent. They’ll continue to buy and read Westerns, no matter how scathing the condemnations of academics and critics.
Another factor is the unusual malleability of the Western form. From the beginning, Westerns have adapted themselves to contemporary belief. Early stories had a great deal to do with character and the fate imposed by character. Later stories dealt with the lone individual preserving his integrity and life against the forces of social conformity. In recent decades, they have reflected modern racial concerns: the protagonists are likely to be Indians or Hispanics or their white sympathizers, while the antagonists are invariably rapacious whites. The perfect example is Dances With Wolves, Michael Blake’s eminently successful book and screenplay in which the Indians and a white ally are the protagonists and the army is the antagonist. To anathematize all Westerns as racist, sexist, and imperialist, as Professor Kittredge does, is to miss the radical differences in Westerns from decade to decade and the flexibility of the genre. Westerns have frequently reflected the social concerns of modern times, even though they are nominally about the frontier and the settlement of the continent. And even in the bad old days when many stories treated Indians as antagonists, there was a powerful countervailing sympathy for Indians whose lands and living were ripped away from them. I do not know of any period in which Westerns lacked sympathy for Indians, although many early stories revealed a white cultural chauvinism that held that the red man’s salvation was to become like whites, or else die off as a result of their atavistic ways.
Another, and perhaps the boldest, of my propositions is that some Westerns are excellently written. Beleaguered Western novelists, operating in an arid and hostile milieu, have been forced to tell good stories and tell them well, or face extinction. Some Westerns are amazingly powerful. Western novelists have also escaped the literary fads of minimalism and nihilism that have turned serious literary fiction into a sea of decadence and triviality. The Western novelist can and does treat large themes—justice, death, love, loyalty, mercy, personal integrity—themes that mainstream novelists consider hopelessly cliched and passé. Readers of Westerns therefore find the very grandeur and depth of understanding that one has always associated with the best mainstream authors.
For several years now, one of New York’s most important agents, Nat Sobel, has attended the conventions of Western Writers of America, just to see what the Western genre is all about. His clients are largely important mainstream novelists. A year or so ago he shared his observations about Westerns with the assembled authors and editors: he had discovered, he said, that Western authors are doing some of the best writing in the whole of American literature, and that they are being treated shabbily by publishers—far worse than the authors in any other category, or those writing mainstream fiction. Mr. Sobel was correct. Some remarkable novels are being written in the Western field by novelists who would be celebrated for their abilities if they were writing in any other genre.
There are two basic types of Westerns: the romantic (or mythic) and the realistic. Neither is in any danger of extinction, although the mythic Western is currently in decline. The mythic story is not really about the West, but about character. It is rarely set in a geography of actual places. The frontier and its lawlessness and hardships serve merely to focus the story on the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses. The mythic story is largely an affirmation: in the end, justice is done and good triumphs and the manliness, courage, and integrity of the hero prevail. These stories are lightly researched and could be set most anyplace—not just the American West. Max Brand, Luke Short, and Louis L’Amour wrote mythic stories, along with the majority of Western novelists. The other type is about the frontier West itself. It is intensively researched and essentially a historical novel. Its protagonists do not necessarily triumph, and are likely to be flawed. They certainly don’t serve the mythic purpose of affirming our national character. These stories tend to be more complex, reflecting the human condition in all its tragedy and triumph. These realistic Western novels are on the ascendant and may dominate the genre in the future. Many Western novelists have written both types. Jack Schaefer, for instance, wrote the classic mythic story Shane, and a powerful realistic novel of the West, Monte Walsh.
It is worth noting that the mythic Western is the, variety that has come under attack. The mythic Western offers a vision of American manhood that many find intolerable. Even more intolerable to them is the underlying message: that it is possible for strong people to work out their own salvation, largely by adhering to traditional norms of conduct and belief If the minions of the Modern Language Association attack such stories with amazing vehemence, it is because they fully understand the grip that these Homeric stories have upon the soul of the nation. Some of the criticism is certainly justified.
The women typically found in the mythic Western are sketchy and subservient, and the mythic story is often dismissive of the Indians who were displaced by the onslaught of white civilization. But I suspect that the most important reason why the critics despise the mythic Western is simply that it celebrates a glorious, bold, and enterprising America. It celebrates the grandeur and uniqueness of the Republic.
The future of the Western is not in doubt, unless its detractors take the final step by resorting to censorship. Many of those who wish to abolish the Western have brushed close to advocating that ultimate weapon, and Professor Kittredge fervently wishes Westerns would go away. Perhaps some day Westerns will be sold under the counter, the way Henry Miller was fifty or sixty years ago. But I think it is more likely that the day of the fanatics will pass, and Westerns will return to eminence, cherished by Americans in all walks of life. Once, not so long ago. Westerns were a source of national joy; they were our unique contribution to world literature (some would argue that the hardboiled private eye story is also an original American contribution). Westerns were once published by the most prestigious houses, including Alfred Knopf, and serialized weekly in the Saturday Evening Post and other magazines. That sort of popularity and acceptance may not return, but whenever Americans feel good about their country, you’ll see a reemergence of the Western.