Friday, April 6, 2018

IN DEFENSE OF TRADITIONAL WESTERN FICTION by CHARLIE STEEL






























This article was first posted in WWA Roundup Magazine April 2009. I am not sure if it later appeared on Western Fictioneers Blog or not. In speaking with Cheryl Pierson, she suggested I post it again. (I recall spending a great deal of time writing this article; hope you enjoy it).
Charlie Steel

There are many articles in magazines, on blogs, and on the World Wide Web that criticize traditional
Westerns and their authors. This is unfair. Certainly John Steinbeck would not be categorized very
well in any specific genre. That great writer also happened to pen some unforgettable Western
stories.

His writing is filed mainly in libraries and bookstores as Fiction. Readers and writers don't really think of him in
any specific genre, other than to judge his work as it stands.

A good well-written story is exactly that---a good well-written story. It stands alone separate from any labeling.
That holds true for Westerns as well. It is unfortunate that we cannot categorize all contemporary, historical, and
traditional Westerns as simply Fiction.

First, it is wrong for anyone, especially writers, historians, professors, and bloggers to publicly make suppositions
that the Western is in an unhealthy state. Its health is fine and will remain fine; it just no longer dominates the
media like it once did.

Most disturbing are statements declaring traditional Westerns as passé. It is repeatedly emphasized that writers
and readers should concentrate on contemporary and historically accurate Westerns written by living authors.
Some discussions seem to declare embarrassment of traditional forms and state they are tiresome, cliché, and
should no longer be promoted. Specifically, some writers today lament the fact that Zane Grey, Max Brand, and
Louis L'Amour seem to continue to dominate bookshelves, book sales, and Western author name recognition.
It is difficult to comprehend why current writers complain about the continued success of these three famous
Western authors. Envy is not an appropriate response to their vast achievements. Wishful thinking is not going
to rescind their continued fame or past triumphs. Negative pronouncements are embarrassing and conceited.
They show contempt and a vast lack of respect for the success of these three writers and their inestimable
contributions to the status of the Western. There is a reason why these three writers continue to dominate sales
and it has to do with their historical timing, talent, and marketing skills, and very little to do with luck. New authors
may someday reach their stature but will never replace them. Such iconic acclaim comes only from an equal
status in sales and public recognition. And, for most living writers, that will be a long time coming.

Authors of traditional fiction have the right to be recognized without ridicule, and to write in any form they choose,
so long as it is tasteful and a good story. The negative statements about writers of traditional fiction will forever
be out there in cyberspace and print, continuing to do damage. This creates an unhealthy separatist
atmosphere and is wrong for modern writers or groups to advocate one form of Western writing over another. It
should be recognized that traditional Westerns represent the very foundation of the Western.
The nearly exclusive interest in Westerns continues from the early 1900s until the 1960s. A shift in the focus on
traditional Westerns is not limited to books. When the movies and television were in their infancy, the primary
event in American history that entertainment portrayed was the conquering of the lands beyond the Mississippi.
The writer who can be attributed to that focus is Zane Grey, the man who primarily made the Western popular.
The concentration on the Western theme, first in the movies and then on television, slowly changed. Publishing
houses also followed this trend. This turn of events is a fact, nothing calculated.

This may seem like a quandary or contradiction, but it is not. Less exposure does not mean people throughout
the world are not reading or viewing Westerns---or that they ever stopped reading or viewing them. This just
means Westerns are not the predominate entertainment they once were. This is far from alarming. With the
massive growth in population, and proper marketing, there will be millions of new readers who will turn to
Westerns.

Money seems to be part of this argument. The one thing that all Western writers, contemporary, historical, and
traditional, realize with great lamentation is that the days of the $5000 short story sale to magazines, or large
book advances from publishing houses, are over. Across the spectrum of the publishing industry, the majority of
writers whose work is accepted must submit a marketing plan and outline of how they, the authors, are going to
promote their books once published. Only a very few writers are going to make a large amount of money in book
sales and residuals. Everyone else has to work for those sales.

Consolidation and harsh procedures of large publishing houses can also create obstacles. Writers are turning to
small publishers and to self promotion. Some handle book sales very well; others don't. This is a reality of the
publishing world. In this respect, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L'Amour had an easier time in gaining income
from their literary efforts. The end of that old publishing era is something to regret. On the other hand, writers
who partner or work with creative presses, buy back or publish and market their own books, can earn up to 70%
return on the sale of each book. A phenomenal salary potential has arrived in this computer age. This is
something that all Western authors should consider taking advantage of instead of lamenting the past.
Publishing and marketing are presently more fluid. Authors may have a book with a publishing house and
another they are marketing on their own. In either case, once greater renown of a title is achieved, a writer or
small publisher may or may not allow contracts with bigger publishing houses, (or larger book distributors) and
their work may end up on bookshelves beside the great icons. But, for most authors, this may not be where they
would receive the most reward for their efforts. Creative marketing with author owned books, and direct book
sales at special presentations, for many authors seem to have far greater income potential.

Grey, Brand, and L'Amour certainly established a deep seated connection with their readers by writing stories
that captured the reader's heart. In the first half of the twentieth century their stories dominated the printed
market. Their stories sold around the world and many were turned into film. They remained famous and their
work still sells because their stories contain themes and ideals that continue to appeal to readers. Rather than
turn their backs on these authors, contemporary writers desiring to reach their readers need to study and
emulate what these famous writers have done.

Jon Tuska writes in a forward to Tales of the Golden West: Book Seven (Five Star, 2006):
The greatest lesson the pioneers learned from the Indians is with us still: that it is each man's and each woman's
inalienable right to find his own path in life, to follow his own vision, to achieve his own destiny---even should one
fail in the process. There is no principle so singularly revolutionary as this one in human intellectual history
before the American frontier experience, and it grew from the very soil of this land and the peoples who came to
live on it. It is this principle that has always been the very cornerstone of the Western story.

Tuska maintains this is the reason Grey, Brand, and L'Amour continue to be successful because their writing
contains all of these elements. These writers made vast contributions not only to the Western but to all fiction.
Everyone can learn from their prose and descriptive writing.

The reason all three authors remain in print is because they wrote exciting uplifting stories that will never die. It is
the financial force of the readers that directs the publishers to continue to print books written by the three noted
authors. The writers may have passed away, but their literature has not; they breathed life into their Western
stories that continue to sweep the world over.

Unlike Hollywood scenarios, success for most of us will not come overnight. For some, it may come after death.
For the rest of us, we will have to be content with a series of books or stories in print and be gratified that we are
published authors. We write our stories as well as we can and look for a place among our peers. Not
unexpectedly, some do better than others. One of the most acclaimed living Western authors, Elmer Kelton, has
documented that it took a lifetime to earn recognition.
It is recommended that Western writers persevere, be supportive to ALL styles of tasteful writing, and make a
positive contribution in whatever form. We should be more conciliatory to all Western authors: contemporary,
historical, or traditional. Let posterity and our readership determine what happens to our work.

Addendum:
Since the writing of this article, digital publishing has taken over the publishing industry making it
much easier for writers to publish their own work. Now a writer can choose between submitting to a
publisher or to self-publishing digitally and in print form. Amazon.com continues to dominate this field. Also note: Since the writing of this article, Elmer Kelton has unfortunately passed away.



Historical Perspective of the Influence Three Icons Had on Literature About the West:

ZANE GREY, starting with Betty Zane (as a self published novel) was slow to reach the reading public. But Grey wrote very well and readers responded to his later books about the West. He nearly single handedly---during his lifetime---developed the Western for mass audiences, provided stories and scripts for the very first movies, and briefly owned his own movie studio which eventually became Paramount. In his time, he was incredibly famous and he earned enormous amounts of money---the first American writer to be so well-known and so well paid. For many years in the early 1900s, he explored and researched the West on horseback. He was the first one who scouted and filmed Monument Valley, even if the credit goes to John Ford who happened to make better movies at that location.

MAX BRAND (Frederick Faust) was born to write. He was a genius. His Western stories gallop across the written page at a furious and powerfully entertaining pace. He wrote like a madman, millions of words, and is attributed to have written 500 plus books under 19 pseudonyms and in many themes (genres) other than the Western. A letter recently received from a publishing house that prints his work indicated that Max Brand Westerns are being discovered by young readers and it is they who are becoming the new book buyers for his thrilling work.

LOUIS L’AMOUR wrote some fantastic books. Look at Reilly’s Luck, one of his best. His short stories are wonderful and a few of them would stand up to any writer in the world. For the skeptic, read Trap of Gold. This author is revered by loyal fans who have passed his books down through at least three generations. His unique ability to make the reader feel uplifted after reading one of his stories, perhaps accounts for his continuing fame.


Addendum:
Wikipedia estimates that Louis L'Amour has sold over 330 million books. That would make him not only the best selling Western author of all time, but also among the twenty top selling authors, from any genre, in the history of mankind.


Charlie Steel is the author of Fight for Wet Springs, Desert Heat, Desert Cold and Other Tales of the West, as well as many short stories.


Text Copyright © 2010 by CONDOR PUBLISHING, INC





19 comments:

  1. Charlie, I really enjoyed this post. Lots of excellent writers of the western genre out there! I love Louis L'Amour--he was the one that got me started reading everything western I could find, and I have very fond memories of his books because I shared them with my dad and he loved them as much as I did.

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    1. Thanks, Cheryl! And thank you for helping me post this article properly!

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  2. Well said, Charlie. I think the writer, whatever his choice of genre, tells the best story they can. The key is to always try to tell the next one better. If you read any of the authors mentioned you will see their growth as writers.

    My maternal grandfather loved to read, and had many of these authors books. In many ways, I wish I could have known him better. Still as my mother said, I inherited his BS degree and I believe that helps when I tell my stories. Doris

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    1. Thanks, Doris.

      The three iconic writers, Grey, Brand, and L'Amour are still being read and their books are passed down generation after generation. They came first and they had tremendous success as authors!

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  3. This is a great article, Charlie. You did a wonderful job explaining why these three icons define what a Western is, and why they are synonymous with the genre.

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  4. Charlie,

    I read my first Louis L'Amour book when I was in junior high in the late '60s, and I still read them. I have all of his works in my personal library, and I reread my favorites often.

    Here's a true story: When I was in high school, in addition to the regular English classes required for graduation, I was in advanced English, writing, and literature classes. One of my advanced courses English teachers chided me for reading Louis L'Amour's books when they were clearly beneath, and below, my reading level and intelligence. She was seriously concerned that his books were my choice of recreational reading when there were so many other 'worthy' pieces of literature, even though she'd never read one of his books to develop an informed opinion.

    Eventually, we made a deal. She'd read at least two of my top five favorites, "The Man Called Noon", "The Key-Lock Man", "Last Stand at Papago Wells", "How the West was Won", and "Dark Canyon", in exchange for me reading at least two from her list. To my delight, she read all five on my list, and to her satisfaction, I read 'Catch-22' and 'Doctor Zhivago' from hers. This teacher admitted I had opened her mind to the importance of the western novel as a reflection of, and tribute to, our American heritage and the settling of the west. She also, grudgingly, conceded that Louis L'Amour's books were 'worthy' reading.

    Now, fast forward many, many years to when I taught junior high English and literature. I gave students a taste of all genres in an effort to whet their reluctant-reader appetites. For the western genre, we read "How the West was Won" and "Down the Long Hills". Students liked the history woven throughout "How the West was Won" and they worried themselves silly over the plight of the two youngsters in the other. They went away from this western reading experience just a few steps closer to becoming life-long readers.

    My point in this long comment is to reiterate your statements in this article, because you summed it up so well:

    "Grey, Brand, and L'Amour certainly established a deep seated connection with their readers by writing stories that captured the reader's heart... The reason all three authors remain in print is because they wrote exciting uplifting stories that will never die."

    This is why Louis L'Amour, Max Brand, and Zane Grey have stood the test of time, and why a reluctant reader will often become a regular reader.

    In case you couldn't tell *wink*, I enjoyed your article very much.

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    1. Kaye Spencer,

      Wow! How kind of you to quote part of my article.

      I am sure everyone who reads your well thought out explanation of your love for Louis L'Amour's writing, will enjoy what you have stated. I am also sure they will very much appreciate your real life experiences regarding such literature.

      Kaye Spencer, past English teacher, promoting WESTERNS!

      Yes, these three icons have indeed stood the test of time.

      Delete
  5. There is no greater escape fiction than the western. Zane Grey's "Forlorn River" remains my all-time favorite novel decades later. I did not realize that his forays into the film industry led to the eventual development of Paramount.

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    1. BK,
      Glad you have a favorite of Zane Grey.

      Zane Grey Productions was sold to what was known as Famous Players-Lasky, which later morphed into Paramount.

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  6. Michael R. Ritt, thank you very much!

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  7. Thanks for this insightful article, Charlie. Well done.

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  8. Good post, Charlie. Those who criticize the Western don't seem to understand that regardless of the genre, storytelling is just that: storytelling. And within that umbrella term "the Western," are many different stories that satisfy those who enjoy crime and detective stories, romance, suspense, political intrigue, historical adventure, and other storylines.

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    1. Tom,

      You've got that right. Many different stories and topics are written by a lot of talented writers. A good story is just that and should be judged only for quality not genre!

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  9. Lots of hard facts for today's writers of western fiction. With the electronic age upon us,the presentation of stories, short or in novel form, has changed as has also the marketing strategies. The three icons of yesteryear have gifted us all with a pattern to follow. Great post, Charlie. I enjoyed it.

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  10. Thank you so much, Jerry. A very successful pattern to follow, indeed!

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  11. Charlie, thanks for writing such an interesting and thought-provoking article.

    When one decides to write westerns, it's sort of a "hold my beer" moment. As for disrespect of a genre, I get a much more favorable response when people find out I'm a western writer than when they learn I also write romance. Romance sells more but then people think you write "bodice rippers." Of course, most have never read a romance, or a western for that matter. Sigh.

    As for "tasteful," that is definitely in the eye of the beholder. Many would consider my current western series quite the opposite. So I don't worry about that too much--just let my character go about her business and I stay along for the ride.

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  12. Jacquie Rogers,

    I am sure anything you write is appropriate and well written!

    There is a young audience to reach out there. Only 30% of the population read books in any case, but those that do and who discover WESTERNS will be pleasantly surprised.

    That goes for the three icons, and for those of us working hard to provide the best stories we can write.

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