The Western isn’t dead. It just has a problem with logistics.
Go into your local bookshop and look for the Western section. Chances are, there isn’t one. So where do Westerns end up? Sometimes they sit confusedly with Science Fiction or Fantasy. Sometimes, they’re lumped in with Crime. Often, they’re spread through general Fiction. Interestingly, Westerns are almost always scattered: the only place I’ve ever encountered a dedicated Western section is in my local library.
But even though a search of the library catalogue turned up McCarthy and Lansdale, Elmore Leonard and Annie Proulx, Stephen King and Laura Ingalls Wilder, were any of them in the Western section? Were they, hell. The “Western” section turned out to be one shelf, sandwiched between the large print biographies and large print sports books. And it was also the same Western, over and over: stock, cowboy-and-injun style pulp novels. “There are other Westerns,” the nice librarian admitted, “but I didn’t want to put them here, in case no one ever picked them up.”
These stock-Westerns are one of the major problems with the genre; I’ve heard them called “Old-Man Westerns” and I will admit, I’ve never been tempted to read one. Some are re-issues from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, which I’m fairly certain contain toe-curling examples of misogyny and racism. I can’t speak for the modern ones. If they are trying to do something different, then their hackneyed covers aren’t doing them any favours.
When people say that the Western has been shot through the heart and buried at the crossroad, this is the type of Western they’re thinking about. These are products of the old guard, of Ford and Wayne. Westerns where the white man, whether drifter or settler, is championed, destined to colonise, control, re-make the world in his image. These are the Westerns of Hollywood and the Saturday Matinee, with their simplistic good vs. evil, civilised vs. savage duality that supports the notion of manifest destiny.
But importantly, this is only one type of Western. Ever since (and even before) the revisionist movement of the 1960s, writers and artists have been proving that even at its most cliché, its most extreme, its weirdest, the Western is more than stock tropes. The Western is a backdrop, a concept, both unfilled and brimming with possibility. As Annie Proulx once said, it “provides the architecture, and the content is provided by the characters and the events that happen to them.”
The Western has always offered a chance to re-evaluate the truth behind the birth of a nation, the mythologizing of America. It’s a story of colonists with modern technology at their disposal; steam engines, telegraphs, powerful firearms. Now more than ever, Westerns can take a hard look at those themes and scrape away at the misplaced romanticism that has dogged the genre. To say that the Western needs re-inventing is missing the point. The Western is constantly being re-invented. And there’s enough hunger in readers and writers alike to keep the genre in a constant, healthy state of flux.
“Old Man Westerns” shouldn’t dominate that shelf space in the library. It needs to be reclaimed, expanded to house the huge range of authors who are all proving that the Western is a more expansive, more nuanced genre than it is commonly perceived to be.
Cyberpunk books don’t speak for the whole of science fiction. Fantasy can encompass Grimdark, Epic, Urban, Historical, Sword and Sorcery, so why not the Western? There are Zombie Westerns (David Towsey’s Walkin’ Trilogy), Steampunk Westerns (Molly Tanzer’s Vermillion, Cherie Priest’s The Clockwork Century), Fantasy Westerns (John Hornor Jacobs’ The Incorruptibles, Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country), Weird Westerns (Jurassic London’s A Town Called Pandemonium), Satirical Westerns (Ishmael Reed’s Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down), Anthropomorphic Woodland Creature Westerns (Daniel Polansky’s upcoming The Builders), and even – gasp! – plain contemporary Westerns. The Western can be all of these things: it can also be none of these things. It can be something new entirely. And contrary to the old saying, there’s room in this town for the lot of us.
The Western doesn’t need a huge Hollywood hit to revive it, an all-guns-blazing comeback or a champion in shiny spurs. The Western has its advocates, its creators, its fans, both new and old. They’re already here, getting on with business. What the Western needs, more than anything, is its damn bookshelf back.
In writing this, I’m all too aware that there are a hell of a lot of Westerns I haven’t mentioned. I still have loads of them to read, because I’ve only got two eyes and an ever-increasing TBR pile, but I’m sure keen to hear about more. Do come over to Twitter and shout ‘em at me: @starkholborn.