f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Day 2 of Genre – Western

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Day 2 of Genre – Western

Hmmmm…as I start this process I notice how woefully unprepared I am to even attempt any kind of meaningful discourse on, well, most of these genres. (In my defense, however, I’m usually woefully unprepared to talk about most of the things I end up talking about and that’s never stopped me before, so we’ll just plow on.) One instructive aspect of this could be that in genre fiction there are fans and then there are the rest of us who look at the fans and say, “You read what? Why?”

Which is not necessarily my take on Westerns. My take is probably something more along of the lines of: “You read what? Aw, how quaint!” Doesn’t it seem like a genre that time has passed by? I think my grandfather read westerns. Zane Gray. Louis L’Amour. Are there others? I know Steven Bly is doing the Western thing in the CBA realm and living it, too. But like the cowboy, this genre seems to be a vanishing breed. A lonesome tumbleweed cast adrift on all the hot air blowing out of publishing houses.

What’s interesting is that film has managed over the years to give the genre occasional shots in the arm. Open Range, The Missing, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, the epic Unforgiven, and the inimitable Young Guns. I and II. I don’t sense a great resurgence of interest in books linked with Hollywood, however.

The most popular recent foray’s into the genre, so far as I can tell, are Larry McMurtry’s novels, Cormac McCarthy’s Border Crossing Trilogy featuring All the Pretty Horses (which is also the name of a trans-gender punk rock group in Minneapolis), and the cowboy poetry/themes in Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. I’m certain I’m missing some books, but I searched Amazon for a little and nothing too huge popped out at me. Feel free to fill in any blanks.

I think I read a Zane Gray or two when I was a kind, but my most recent experience with the genre was Sigmund Brouwer’s Sam Keaton series. (Full disclosure: BHP repackaged these books so they were in our list. They may be out of print again.) Anyway, I was thoroughly entertained by Brouwer’s books. They seemed to have the requisite horses and gun play and rough landscape. There was a world-weary sardonic tone that I found appealing. Yippee-kai-yeah.

The western genre gives us a chance to see how often, a novel is actually two distinct genres at once—in this case the “historical western.” Most of us (I did at least) almost instinctually think of western as set in the past. There’s certainly no reason why one can’t have a modern western (other than much of the west has changed greatly) but most seem to be in the late 19th-century, set amid the settling, Manifest-Destiny-style, of our nation. Time and place become key elements in the western. It’s defined by it’s landscapes and wide open spaces. It is, perhaps with jazz and baseball, one of the purest American creations ever.

And yet it’s dying. Seems to be at least.

I’m wondering if it’s a matter of political correctness. Are we unable to read stories of “heroes” who conquered the west? Is it a shift in national psychology? Has the call to rugged individualism been tamed?

What’s interesting is that, in general terms, the Western is often seen as a “male” genre, i.e. one men will read. Certainly women read it, too, but women read everything. Has the male gaze shifted over the years to the technological/war thriller of Clancy and his ilk? And is there a way to recapture that gaze?

The last question is the hardest to answer. I know we’d hesitate over a western series no matter how good it is. It is a genre that seems to lend itself well to issues of faith, however. There’s something about the vastness of the west that lends itself to contemplation. (See Kathleen Norris’ Dakota for instance.) And if it’s set in the past, there were everyday issues of faith that simply don’t seem to exist today. But there seems to also be a limited expanse of ground you can cover out there in Big Sky country. It often seems to be man vs. God and little else.

I don’t like to see the genre disappear though. Especially one that is linked so pivotally with our country. But what twist the re-emergence of the genre will have to take, I can only predict.