Thursday, April 17, 2008

Where Did All the Westerns Go?

Western author and superb blogger Richard S. Wheeler (pictured below) posted today about a very interesting question:
There is a new study by Bowker, quoted on Lee Goldberg’s website, that indicates that mysteries now dominate American publishing, with 17 percent of all trade books sold. Women’s romances, once the most lucrative of all forms of publishing, account for only 11 percent. Science fiction accounts for 5.5 percent. General fiction accounts for 3 percent, and horror, 2 percent. Apparently western fiction is off the charts, to no one’s surprise.
His question: Why on Earth are westerns so unpopular?

I have often wondered about this question myself. According to Wikipedia, in 1959 there were 29 prime-time western series running on American TV. Where did they all go?

The answer Wheeler gives is one I had not thought of at all: namely, that, while mysteries are about getting rid of violence (violence is the enemy) westerns are about using violence (violence is your friend, or can be). This of course clashes with values that are now fashionable.

Maybe the reason I'd never thought of this answer is that I had always thought of the attitude toward violence in the western was more ambivalent than that. Yes, the western hero is typically violent, but that's why he rides off into the sunset in the end. It's why the last shot of The Searchers has Ethan turning away from the family he has just reunited, away from the darkness and security of their home, into the brilliant emptiness of the desert. Having wrested civil society out of the wilderness, his very success has made his virtues into vices. He doesn't belong here. Still, Wheeler does have a point: in a way, westerns accept violence.

Answers to Wheeler's question that I have come up with from time to time are similar to his in one way: like his, they have to do with people's values.

One is that many western plots are about "taming the wilderness" and turning it into ranches and farms. In other words, its about property, the romance of real estate. This presupposes a whole world of ethical and political values and norms, one that may well have crumbled by now. Maybe people don't feel so romantic about property today.

Another is that a major source of the charm of westerns is that they are set in a situation in which the presence of the state is minimal or non-existent. In the wild West, you often have to enforce your own rights. If you wait for civil society to do it, you'll be dead. In a word, westerns are about anarchy. They are fiction's only constitutionally anarchist genre. As such, they represent a wild sort of freedom. Maybe, like the romance of property, that's not such a popular idea any more, either.

Notice that one of the most popular genres nowadays is the police procedural, in which the protagonist is a government employee. Yecch! Is there any way you could get further away from the ethos of the western? (Try to imagine Ethan Edwards even saying the word, "procedural.")

Folks sometimes point out that though TV westerns have gone the way of the T-rex and the dodo bird, there are a few recent western movies that have been popular. There's 3:10 to Yuma. And No Country for Old Men is a sort of modern western. But these examples usually have very pronounced counter-generic qualities when scrutinized. In other words, they are anti-westerns. At the end of 3:10, the hero, instead of riding off into the sunset, is shot and killed by the bad guys. Old Country, as I have said earlier, is completely nihilistic. It ends with the hero letting the bad guys have the world. True westerns affirm a world in which beauty is real and values can be achieved.

Can that be the real reason they are so unpopular?

13 comments:

Anonymous said...

This is a most thoughtful assessment of the fate of western fiction. I used to love westerns because they hinged on the ability of the hero to resolve his problems on his own in an empty land, without the social structures that exist in civilization. Violence, where sometimes necessary, was used reluctantly. But all that changed. You have focused most thoughtfully on these traditions and changes that have altered westerns.

Many thanks,

Richard Wheeler

"Q" the Enchanter said...

Wheeler's explanation can't be right. Consider, for example, that the revenge movie (in which often exquisite violence is used to achieve "justice" outside the domain of state institutions) is flourishing.

The notion that westerns were "about property, the romance of real estate" I think confuses plot with setting, in an idiosyncratically libertarian way.

I think the anarchical character of storied western life is not likely explanatory either, since (1) it's hard to see why a society that can stomach nihilist tales would have any problem with anarchy, (2) many westerns esteem the Law Man, and the bringing of Order and Civilization to a disordered, uncivilized land (sometimes, as in the Ox-Bow Incident, by way of presenting a cultural critique of anarchical, "mob" justice), and, as mentioned above, (3) the revenge movie still remains popular.

It also occurs to me that instead of being a victim of changing attitudes about underlying themes, it might be the case that the interest in such themes persists, but that other genres exploring them may have cornered the market. (One good candidate here might be the war film.)

Lester Hunt said...

Richard, Thanks for your kind words. Coming from you, that really means something. The western authors I am familiar with are all well within the classical tradition of the genre. And then there's Wheeler, who I guess you could call neo-classical.

Lester Hunt said...

"q", I consider Oxbow to be a perfect example of an anti-western, maybe the greatest of them all, for the very reason you give. The posse that forms up as soon as the crime is committed and rides out to right wrongs would be the good guys in a real western. In this one of course they turn out to be bad. And the book's stated theme, which comes very close to saying that the liberal state is wiser than the individual, is as far from the western ethic as you can imagine.

Yes, the western is about bringing law and order to the wilderness, but the attitude toward the result is ambivalent. See value in the wild land that was there before we started to plow it up.

Also, it sounds like you are confusing anarchy with chaos and violence. Indian cultures were typically anarchist (in my sense) but generally peace and order reigned within the tribe. Relations between tribes could be chaotic and violent, of course, but that's true of states as well.

Anonymous said...

if you want to see a western concerning the 'civilizing' of a land, rent The Proposition, a little masterpiece coming out of Australia last year by director John Hillcoat (who, coincidentally, is directing the upcoming adaptation of McCarthy's The Road for '09).

"Q" the Enchanter said...

Lester, interesting and fair points all. I'd just add that the aspects of anarchy you stress are pretty transparent, the focus being on our standard, non-governmentally regulated intercourse with friends, family, strangers, etc. Which makes it hard to see the genre as distinctively "anarchist." Naturally, because the story takes place in local anarchy, the State doesn't intrude on or otherwise much figure in the narrative; but then neither does it typically do so in your love story, your horror film, your comedy, your family drama,...

Lester Hunt said...

"q," It may be that police procedurals are the only genre that includes characters interacting with agents of the state as constitutive plot elements, but Westerns have essential elements that actually presuppose the absence of the state. On the one hand, no one can tell you what to do, where to live, how you are allowed to make a living, and so forth. On the other hand, you are completely on your own. Thugs or wild natives might kill you at any moment, and any public order that is achieved is up to you and individuals with whom you cooperate as an individual.

Anonymous said...

Please. The point here is??? Anti-westerns? Why not just speak of the Anti-Christ.

I've read western fiction for more years than I care to admit; for entertainment, not enrichment, not education, not even enlightenment. It was simply a journey back to simpler times when, after the Saturday afternoon movies, the kids escaped to the great field in the center of our neighborhood and replayed the movie the way we would have written it. We knew what we saw was fiction: we knew what we played at was even greater fiction.

Someone in publishing better get wise soon to the fact that there is a market out there for westerns packed with all sort of mayhem and adventure. If you don't think so, check out the FAN LIT sites that exist for old TV westerns. And surprise, surprise, the majority of contributors are WOMEN.

While not all the writing is great, some of it is outstanding; and the sites have a excellent "hit" rates.

As a member of good standing in MENSA, I really get ticked off when people refer to individuals who read and enjoy the westerns I prefer as cretins or ill-bred and uneducated subhumans. I read for fun. Try it. You might like it.

Lester Hunt said...

What makes you think I don't read for fun? Because I care whether the good guy wins, gets shot to bits, or simply gives up? Contrary to what you suggest, the classic TV westerns were not packed with all sorts of mayhem. I think a good part of the reason those shows still have fans is the values they dramatized. The best ones involved moral conflict, not just mindless action.

Ann said...

I watched westerns on TV as a kid, and there was always a riveting dramatic arc, even if you knew the good guy would win, the journey to the end was exciting, it was a -performance-. I watch very little TV nowadays, but the few things I've watched (including the police procedurals) seem nearly devoid of dramatic arc or story. The conflict is one dimensional, the character dialogue is banal beyond belief - how can people watch this stuff for hours? Do they really watch it, or has it become another asynchronous media stimulation, as they also play their ipods and surf the Internet, with TV in the background?

Some of the recent fictional books (not westerns) I've skimmed through at Barnes and Noble have shockingly simple grammar and large font - they remind me of my second-grade readers that way. Is this a symptom of every-shortening attention span? Pick up any genre from the 1930s and there is some real sentence structure there, and smaller adult-oriented font, richer vocabulary. I don't find this a reassuring trend, I must say.

jon said...

A few points to add.
1. the subject matter of the classic westerns and the era in which they were set was within a generation or two of those watching(or reading). You are sitting in a theatre in 1950, you are fifty years old, you were born in 1900. Your father was born - when, maybe in 1870? In Wyoming? Events have lately become a little more distant. We no longer have the same personal bonds to the "wild west". 2. Historical novels and movies tend to be about huge people and huge events. Kings, Big Wars, Big Romance, etc. The western is at its best when looking at the individual vs. society and within nature. As we move away from familial contact with the Wild West do we find that the huge events and the very famous characters are not there?
3. Just when writers were figuring out what to say and think about the natives ...the natives started opening casinos. 4. Americans love violence - still - love it, always will. What we don't love is the morality that attended it in times past. We like it straight. We don't do good guys and bad guys anymore. We do us against them. And everybody is capable of evil.
Thanks, Jon

Anonymous said...

hasn't westerns always come and gone in a sort of cycle in cinema?

also, it can be found as influence in certain work...like kill bill

kalany said...

I think science fiction/fantasy picked up where westerns left off, and to some extent the reality TV show.

Today the west has been tamed. There are still shows out there like "survivalist" and "deadliest catch", but for the most part, I think we're to the point where the setting has disappeared from the collective consciousness of the youth. I think if you were to do a word association test with people my age, "final" would pop up as being far more associated with "frontier" than "west" (space, the final frontier...).

Now consider shows like Firefly, Buffy, and Battlestar Galactica. I would say that each of these contains themes that were, a generation ago, found mostly in Westerns. And then there's the 800-pound-gorilla of science fiction across the pond, Doctor Who---which has a lone hero (with sidekicks) in his TARDIS who vworps in, cleans up the situation, and vworps out again. How much more canonically Western can you get?

I also think shows are driven to some extent by the fears of the generation. We are not so worried today about fascism and communism---it's perfectly OK for a government employee to come in and clean up the situation. It doesn't necessarily have to be a lone hero. We're much more afraid of the bad guys who look like us, and we find it desirable that the person who should come in and sort things out would be the government. We are uncomfortable with the Lone Ranger mentality (note how it's become negative!) and we want justice to have procedure to it.

Probably in another few generations we'll see the renaissance of the Western, although probably with a different setting. Outer Mongolia, perhaps.