Notes on Westerns
Thursday, August 07, 2014
Jotting notes for the panel at Nine Worlds... this is not a proper post, just a collection of possible moderation 'pokes'.
I'm fascinated by Westerns - especially the way that the tropes and tricks of the genre have been appropriated and/or assimilated into other styles of literature. Playing with the idea that Westerns now exist everywhere (...except as Westerns), what are the hooks for discussion?
The Western genre peaked in the 1960s. Why?
- Changes in format? (death the pulp format meant death of a genre; what's that mean with the format changes in today's publishing industry?)
- Reliance on other media? (Wikipedia cites 1960s rise and fall of Westerns as a result of volume of Western TV shows, and viewer burnout) [interesting parallel to modern fantasy]
- Change in reader interest? (no more frontiers? Cuban Missile Crisis/Vietnam leads to public discouragement in jingoism? less romance of America within America?)
- 'Out of ideas'? Can a genre expire?
Age of the genre means that it has had many more stages of growth/descent/evolution [fantasy equivalent]:
- 'traditional Westerns' - Zane Grey [high fantasy]
- pulp/commercial Westerns - Clifton Adam, JT Edson [sword & sorcery]
- revisionist Westerns - George Gilman [grimdark]
- post-revisionist Westerns - Larry McMurtry, Justified [?!]
- Western fusions - David Towsey, Firefly [New Weird]
- literary Westerns - Cormac McCarthy, Peter Carey, Patrick DeWitt [?!]
What does this mean for the progression of a genre? (Other examples of contemporary but well-developed genres: romance) Are genres teleological? What does this mean for fantasy and SF?
Westerns are American as Steampunk is British - a romanticised pseudo-historical national identity. If Steampunk is a fetishisation of class and empire, Westerns are a fictionalised exploration of freedom and opportunity (and property ownership) - quintessentially American obsessions. Notably, both genres fail to reflect the marginalised experience - Steampunk is the dream of aristocracy without peasantry; Westerns are about land that's there for the taking - also ignoring the exploited people that make that dream possible. What does it mean that, in 2014, Steampunk is bigger in American and Westerns are bigger in the UK? (And is that true?)
(Why are Cherie Priest's books 'Steampunk' and not 'Weird Western' - a decision based on marketing or text?)
Another parallel: turn of the century Westerns weren't historical fiction - they were contemporary. Similarly, early Steampunk was contemporary fiction (Verne, Wells, etc). Setting aside the fantastical elements, can we pinpoint when the depictions of society/setting became less accurate and more romantic? Or were they always there?
Gender roles - women as 'victims, wives and whores' - but is that always true? Many Western romances based on the precept that the women that dare to break their assigned gender roles are the heroines / real interests. How do you make a genre about freedom and opportunity while still forcing great swathes of people into the margins?
Guns. Combat is assumed to be lethal (for one party or the other). As opposed to other genre fights, where wounds heal (the Dungeons & Dragons influence - foundational assumption of fantasy is that getting hit by a sword won't kill you). How do you maintain the tension when combat takes seconds and is completely final?
- Tension about the lethality - am I still the best? Do my hands shake?
- The duel is always at the end.
- The tension surrounds the decision to fight, rather than the fight itself. Once we know the duel is going to happen, resolution is inevitable (and secondary).
Westerns have recognisable tropes --
- Swinging doors
- Frilled dresses
- War for independence
- (Lost) war for independence
- Caravan through hostile territory
- Reclaiming masculinity
- Reluctantly fighting again
- The duel
- Town vs individual relationship
How Western does a Western need to be before it is a Western? Did Firefly need horses? Did Red Country need Native Americans? Is Footloose a Western?
Westerns popular (critical and commercial) in other media - No Country for Old Men, True Grit, country music, Deadwood, Justified, arguably even in comics (?)... and in literary fiction. Even in this blog post, impulse is to seek out a Western film poster rather than a book cover in order to express genre succinctly. But despite some excellent recent Western-inflected genre novels, Westerns qua Westerns don't seem to be catching fire. Why not? Will a Western win the Booker before it wins a genre award?