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?
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