The Western novel has always been hedged about with more conventions than any other category, with the possible exception of women’s romances. I’ve often puzzled about why that is so, and even after years of thinking about it, I don’t have any good answers. I know that some of it has to do with the fact that the classical Western is mythic in nature. It is not just a story; it’s an affirmation of our history, expressed in a special way.
In the traditional Western justice is done, at least if justice is defined in a certain way. The small rancher wins over the ruthless cattle baron, and thus confirms the right of freeholders to own the earth and profit from their holdings. In the mythic Western, victory comes at last to the character who is the most splendid example of fantasy manhood; the one who is the best warrior, cowhand, brawler, and shootist. He’s also the most honest, audacious, loyal, temperate, courageous, and truthful.
The mythic Western story doesn’t employ real characters, but magical ones who represent what the readers want to be; it is the readers themselves who stalk through the pages, vicariously gunning down evil, winning what amounts to private wars, and revenging themselves for past wrongs. That’s why the mythic stories are so hedged about with conventions. It would never do to raise the moral ambiguities of the real frontier, and confuse or discourage the reader.
In other areas of publishing, times change. But Westerns don’t change. Publishers of hardcover library Westerns have allowed a little freedom recently, but the mass market houses that spin out the novels that stuff the drugstore racks have essentially the same conventions as ever. The readership of mythic Westerns seems to be stable, and as long as that is the case, publishers don’t want to experiment.
To any veteran reader of Westerns the conventions seem so natural that it seems hardly possible a Western can be written in other ways. All authors of Westerns are well aware of them, and know they must heed them, or publishers will reject their novels. Foremost among these conventions is the requirement that the story occur sometime between the Civil War and the 1890’s, roughly when the frontier vanished. Another requirement is that these stories be about loners in armed conflict—for example, the young rancher who must fight off the predations of a villainous cattle king.
Another important rule is that the central figure be male. With very few exceptions over the years, Westerns have been built around male enterprises or male warfare, as in the gunman-type stories. Very few Western heroes are married. Such women as appear are sketchily portrayed and aren’t important to the plot. Yet another tradition is that there be no substantial love interest, although love is not totally forbidden. Another powerful convention is that the male protagonist must be heroic. His character is commanding. He knows what to do: he rarely wonders what course of action is wisest, or weighs questions of good and evil, or wonders whether he’s a fool. As is true of most mythic characters, he doesn’t grow or change as a result of his trials, but triumphs on the basis of his innate superiority over his antagonists. Emotions are largely tabooed: the mythic Western hero should properly be poker-faced and stoic, a Clint Eastwood type, and avoid anything resembling uncontrolled rage, tears, shame, tenderness, or laughter. You’ll never see a Western hero feeling self-pity. He never blames scapegoats for his troubles.
It is especially important that the mythic Western hero not be tender, or express gentle or poetic feelings. He is a born leader, too, who never seems to suffer the dissent or rebellion of his allies. Somehow, he commands the amazing obedience of women. (I cannot think of a single category Western in which a strong, sympathetic woman resists the advice of the protagonist and follows her own counsel to the end of the story. In traditional Westerns only the “bad” or antagonist women are willful.) Still another tradition governing the classic Western is that the hero must be portrayed only from the outside, usually through action. He’s no Hamlet. Readers usually are not made privy to a hero’s private torments or doubts, or even his rejoicing and dreams, lest the flow of action be interrupted. As a result, we rarely see a Western hero in the fullness of his character. We see him only from without.
I have described, in fact, the classic Louis L’Amour Western hero and story, and because of his awesome success, few publishers have deviated from his approach. That great author, who dominated the field for so many years, was both an asset and liability to the Western story. At one point in the early 80’s, he was virtually the only author of single-title Westerns being published, and he kept the category alive at a time when publishers had largely abandoned it. I cherish two of his stories, Flint and Hondo, and admire several others.
But if he was the rescuer of the category, he was also unwittingly responsible for leaving it in a straitjacket. His very success at writing the mythic, romantic Western ensured that the mass market houses would rarely deviate from his formula stories about a frontier West that never really existed. This was no fault of his own, but the product of his astounding success. And sad to say, I believe his influence radically narrowed the Western market, driving away women readers, and especially better-educated readers who might have enjoyed a story about real, flawed mortals wrestling with the dangers of a real frontier and wilderness. His influence has been so profound that in his later years the type of Western story accepted by imitative publishers narrowed more than ever; so much so that gifted authors who earlier wrote of the West in broader strokes—I’m thinking of Ernest Haycox in particular—would now find their manuscripts unwelcomed because they didn’t fit the L’Amour matrix.
As much as I have loved the Western story all my life, I found these ironclad rules daunting. When I began writing Westerns in the mid-70’s, I yearned to tell a more realistic story, about real people challenging the awesome difficulties posed by the wild West. A person of ordinary courage promised to be a better protagonist than the mythic type whose victory is foreordained. There was a much better possibility of suspense, or story tension, where a hero or heroine has those qualities found in most people: courage and fear, cowardice and honor, skill and clumsiness, moral conviction and occasional weakness. This sort of protagonist would grow or shrink, but certainly not remain the same at the end of the story. And the possibility of his or her defeat would add to the underlying tension of the story.
In the course of my research I discovered something else: the historical West was far better material, more colorful and fantastic, than the richest stories of the romantic Western novelists. For a brief, unique period in the 19th century, a flood of people streamed into unknown and dangerous lands. This extraordinary event captured the imagination of the country—indeed, the world. Far from being exhausted by the innumerable Western novels, films, and TV series, the real frontier West is virtually untouched, virginal material available to any novelist. The traditional mythic Western has used this material only as a backdrop to its real theme, male pecking-order struggles between loners out upon a lawless land where social rules don’t apply. But the historical West was rarely about that. The mythic Western is so far removed from the reality of the frontier that the aficionados of the old West rarely read paperback fiction; instead, they buy history and biography from the Universities of Nebraska and Oklahoma presses. The stories and characters in the academic literature are much wilder, more astonishing, and more vivid than anything on the drugstore racks.
I had one additional goal when I set out to write Westerns. I wanted mine to appeal to a more educated, literate readership. That meant doing two things: one was upgrading the vocabulary I would use in the Western to a level commensurate with any serious literary novel. And along with a richer vocabulary, I hoped to achieve a gracious use of metaphor and figures of speech. But here, too, I butted against still another convention. Traditional Westerns are written in the most basic and utilitarian language, and editors have ruthlessly stricken any usages that might have appealed to a literate reader. (I’ve had a copyeditor systematically downgrade the vocabulary in one of my stories.) My other purpose was to deepen my characters, work within their heads, but in ways that didn’t slow the story. There are proper ways to do that, mostly by making the characters’ calculations a part of the plot itself.
I’ve had the great good fortune to have editors who have permitted me to write nontraditional Westerns, including two series that totally escape the traditional Western format. Both are set very early, in the 1840’s and 1850’s, which I find much richer than the post-Civil War era. The 1840’s saw the Oregon migration, the Mormon migration, the California gold rush, the Mexican War, the annexation of Texas, the rise of the buffalo robe trade, the settlement of the Oregon dispute with Great Britain, the development of steamboating up the Missouri, and much more: wagon trains, the Santa Fe Trail, buffalo, the first great Western Indian wars, the explorations of an unknown continent by John Fremont, and the transition of weapons from muzzleloaders to breech-loaders—for starters. And yet, incredibly, that whole decade, and the one following, are taboo to New York publishers with Western lines. To this day, you will not find traditional Western novels set in the 1840’s and 50’s in any traditional line, including those of Fawcett, Pocket Books, Bantam, Warner, NAL, Berkeley, Dell, Avon, Charter, or, until recently. Zebra. If you find such a novel, put it in your safe-deposit box.
Well, I’m a crank. I love the West. I especially love the West of the 1840’s, which was by far the most colorful and fascinating decade in American history. I also have been bemused by the sheer improbability of events in the West. Things regularly happened that are beyond the wildest imaginings of novelists. But most of all, I believe the Western story has never been told. All those thousands of mythic Western novels haven’t told it; neither have the mythic Western films, as good as many of them are.
The result of all this crankiness in me has been a number of novels that are about as far removed from the typical Western as possible. In one, Winter Grass, the hero is a Harvard-schooled Boston Brahmin. In another, Sam Hook, there’s a venal sheriff too fat to ride a horse, so he covers his county in a buggy. In Richard Lamb, the hero is a former mountain man, now a trader to the Blackfeet, who’d been a classics professor at Amherst. My new Pinnacle series, The Rocky Mountain Company, will be the first, as far as I know, to deal with the early buffalo robe trade. In my novel Dodging Red Cloud, the heroine is a clever con artist who matches wits with a rascal. In yet another, the hero is a farmer who’s clawed a fortune in gold out of a Montana gulch, only to lose it to road agents. Is he stoic? No, he falls to the ground, weeping. But ultimately he, and the other protagonists, discover things more important than gold. That one was Fool’s Coach, which won the Spur Award for Best Western Novel in 1989, and I believe its unusual ending had something to do with that.
One could scarcely imagine Western heroes, or situations, farther removed from the L’Amour approach. And yet they are succeeding, more or less. They are profitable, though they don’t capture large audiences. Maybe someday they will: these books are being read by people who otherwise don’t read Westerns, which means I’m expanding the category. I’ve written traditional stories too, most recently one that reworks the Shane theme about the man familiar with weapons who doesn’t wish to use them again. But the nontraditional story is my joy.
All of which suggests that it is possible to market Western stories that buck tradition. Some of the work of Elmer Kelton and Will Henry lies outside the stock category approach. Likewise, the Western stories of Doug Jones, Ben Capps, and some of Jack Schaefer. (I am not in the same league as these men, but their work has inspired and influenced me.) There have always been Western authors who have bucked tradition. But they tend to be the exception, and I’m sure that most Western novels being published today adhere to the powerful conventions I’ve described above.
Still, change is in the air. It began, actually, with Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Western novel Lonesome Dove, back in 1985. That book is a watershed in Western fiction. Mr. McMurtry was careful to point out that his novel isn’t really a Western, and he was quite correct about that, even though the novel contains all the elements of a classic Western story, including an 1870’s cattle drive, conflict with Indians, and cowboy lore. But the difference between Lonesome Dove and a category Western is profound and instructive.
One critically important distinction is that McMurtry’s story is not about loner males in conflict, or justification of the male self through strength. In Dove, bonding is the theme. Some men, loosely bonded by ranching life in Texas, grow closer together on the long trail to Montana as they endure hardships. They grieve the death of any of their number, and express their grief in funeral ritual of a sort that is absent from category Westerns, where bodies lie unburied and unmourned. Friendships, loyalties, sacrifice, and love are profound elements in McMurtry’s story.
McMurtry’s characters wrestle with metaphysics, right and wrong, good and evil, theology, and God—all elements that don’t usually exist in traditional Westerns. McMurtry’s characters are therefore larger than conventional Western heroes. After Gus McCrea dies, the two women who loved him, Lorena and Clara, wonder where Gus’s soul went, and what the experience of dying must be like, and along with their questioning the story acquires a grace and aching intensity unmatched by traditional stories.
There are no mythic heroes in Lonesome Dove. Captain Call and Gus McCrea are marvelously mortal, cranky, idiosyncratic, opinionated, bullheaded, tender, foolish, and wise. They make mistakes and are not so strong as to triumph over all trouble. They are, nonetheless, courageous, and empathetic as well. The women, Clara and Lorena, are as bullheaded and uncertain and bewildered by life as the men. And both antagonists. Blue Duck and Jake Spoon, are as complex as the protagonists.
Tenderness is important in McMurtry’s story. One of the best scenes in both the book and TV miniseries involves a picnic in which Gus and Clara rediscover each other after years of separation, enjoying their reunion even while remembering old lovers’ hurts. It was the first picnic I’ve ever seen in a Western story, after thirty-some years of reading them.
Except for a beginning so slow that it will defeat the impatient reader. Lonesome Dove is a model of what can be accomplished in a nontraditional Western story. Others worth studying are Will Henry’s I, Tom Horn, Jack Schaefer’s Monte Walsh, and Elmer Kelton’s The Good Old Boys. All of these transcend the realm of the category story, can be considered literature, and are delightful, realistic expressions of frontier life.
I’ve been lucky enough to find publishers for my nonmythic Westerns, but that doesn’t mean publishers are comfortable with them. They are all packaged as traditional Westerns, no matter what the contents. My story Richard Lamb was about an old man who has become an Indian trader after years as a mountain man. He has a flowing white beard and hair, and wears beautiful golden buckskins, elaborately fringed, and decorated by his Blackfeet wife. He has a white medicine horse. But on the cover of the Ballantine paperback, he has been transformed into a cowboy with a Levi jacket, jeans, boots and spurs, and a cowboy hat. The beard is there, but neatly trimmed down, and the flowing hair is gone. He sits on a golden-colored quarter horse. Another of my stories has a heroine who is something of a con artist. The Ballantine cover for that one features an Indian warrior on a rearing horse, waving a signal blanket. I get the feeling that my novels were smuggled into the line, and smuggled into readers’ hands with a misleading traditional cover. These may be fine covers. They probably sell more books than a cover that truly depicts my story. But they are also an expression of the feverish wish among New York publishers that every novel they publish replay the old themes, for the same old readers. The packaging of my nontraditional stories says to me that New York publishers don’t want to develop new markets or alter lines in ways that entice new readers to try them. It’s worth noting that no publisher of category Westerns shifted the line toward McMurtry’s way of telling a Western story, or even experimented with it.
A year or so ago, Ballantine decided to discontinue its Western line, and I suddenly found myself without a paperback publisher for my M. Evans hardcover Westerns. The Ballantine line had been profitable, my editor told me, but panic had stricken the Random House empire, and a lot of changing and cutting was going on. Through last winter and spring, my hardcover publisher began soliciting other paperback reprint houses about doing my stories. There were three for sale, two of which had been published. It was quickly made known to the various paperback houses looking at my stories that Fool’s Coach had won the Spur Award.
Much to the astonishment of the people at M. Evans, the Western editor at Pocket Books rejected all three. Fool’s Coach, he said, fell apart at the end. By falling apart, he meant that the heroes lost their gold. They should have blasted their way out with a big gunfight and kept their gold. That’s how the mythic Western works. And the other two books, he explained in his letter to M. Evans, weren’t Westerns at all! One of the books, Where the River Runs, involves a captain who takes a treaty-making party out to the northwest tribes in the 1840’s—and is never seen again. His fiancee hires a guide and goes looking for him. The other one, Montana Hitch, is about a rancher in the 1880’s who has wife-problems along with problems with rustling and neighbors who exploit him. But these weren’t Westerns! One is set in the 1840’s, so it’s not a Western. A Western, remember, is a story that is set somewhere between the Civil War and 1890. The other has a hero with a bad marriage—so that’s not a Western either! I’ve read hundreds of Westerns, and I can’t remember even one in which the hero had a bad marriage. It didn’t matter that both stories were set in the frontier West—in the estimation of the young Pocket Books editor, they weren’t Westerns. And in a certain way, he’s quite right. Pocket Books, more than any other publisher, hews rigidly to traditional Western stories. In fact, that is why the Pocket Books Western line is comprised largely of ghosts. That house specializes in dead Western authors, and you can’t get more traditional than that. It is an odd quirk in the house that published Lonesome Dove.
In spite of the recent discontinuation or reduction of several Western lines, the frontier story is not in danger of extinction. The present turmoil is really an opportunity to write and publish new forms of the Western story, ones that will reach the broad national audiences that Westerns enjoyed in the days when the old Saturday Evening Post ran serialized Westerns that were enjoyed by people from all walks of life. A bold novelist, willing to research and write about the real frontier, use realistic heroes instead of mythic ones, and add literary graces to the genre, can capture a new market for himself and his publishers. The historical frontier is a virgin field.