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Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Western Defined - Or Not

I queried several people I know who write/read/watch westerns. The question was simple enough. What to you defines a western?

It turned out to be not so simple after all. Consider just a few of the anomalies in their responses:

Time Period:
Some responded that it should be set in the time frame after Lewis and Clark’s journey but before the year 1900. Yet some felt it could stretch into the early 20th century and right on up to present day.

Geographic Location:
Some responded that it should be set in the American West, defined as that which is west of the Mississippi River. Yet some felt a good western could even occur in another country and be considered under the western genre.

Most generally felt the wide open spaces of the American West in the 19th Century was the setting of choice, yet there were those who would consider even some sci-fi plots that had a western theme to be in this category.

There wasn’t even unanimous agreement that horses and guns were necessary to a western novel!

No wonder I find this such a confusing topic!

Someone reading this blog might at this point be inclined to ask – Why is she trying to box in a definition? The answer? I’m not. As that beloved cowboy tune so aptly puts it - “Don’t fence me in!” Walk into any bookstore and the array of books on all their shelves speaks to a diversity of topics, styles, and tastes – literally something for almost everyone. We need that diversity in books of all genres.

However as a western reader and writer, I hear much talk of the question, Is the western dead? It is debated frequently in western circles and everyone has their own answers. And for me personally, I don’t find too many western novels published in the vein of the “traditional western” to satisfy me. What do I mean by that? I mean I don’t find many books that give me the “WOW!” factor when reading them – books that stand the test of time as westerns (my own specific definition) and fill my yearning for the traditional western fare. All right. I’m not finding the western books I want to read.

So the question I ask myself is – why?

· Is it because I’m just too doggone picky for my own good?
· Are the books out there and I’m just not finding them?
· Has the “traditional western” mostly been abandoned (some would say adapted) to fit modern tastes?
· Am I just crazy? (be politically correct and don’t answer that.) 8-)
· Maybe there’s a bit of each of these factors involved.

But before we can press forward, I need to define what to me makes a western.

For me, a western must have:

- The land itself must present strongly in the book – almost a character of its own, defining and shaping the people who inhabit it.
- Horses
- Guns/gunfights of some sort
- High Action – gritty reality without being too overly graphic
- Death
- Characters of strong principle, who will go it alone if necessary to carry out their convictions. To quote the cliché, rugged individualism and a fighting spirit.
- A setting in the 19th century, though I do not confine it to the ‘cowboy era’ of the 1880’s to turn of the century.
- Geographic location west of the Mississippi

Is this a hard and fast list? Probably not. There is bound to be some novel that doesn’t fall in line with each and every one of these criteria. But it’s a starting point.

And notice one thing that WASN’T on my list that would probably occur on most anyone else’s list of a western definition. No romance. No “the good guy’s gotta get the girl in the end.” Will I read a western with a romantic element in it? You bet. But for me, it’s not required. But I’ll address the romance in western fiction element in a future post.

Also in the next month: Since publishing sales figures are notoriously difficult to come by, I’ll be examining the top selling western novels category from rankings for the genre. I’d like to compare those books that top the list to my definition of a western and see how they stack up. I think it will be highly educational (and maybe I’ll learn that I’m crazier then I thought).

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