Why I Like Westerns

In my previous post about genre, I told you why I like science fiction and related types of stories. I went on at length, but the short answer is that I love the world of Faerie, the world that the author gets to build. In that way, speculative storytelling is a lot like the myths that shape our culture.

But what about westerns?

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Gene Roddenberry did say that Star Trek was a wagon train to the stars, so there’s a connection, but this genre is typically defined as stories set west of the Mississippi River between the end of the Civil War and the death of Queen Victoria (points if you know that last reference). Yes, Lewis and Clark fan fiction could be a western, as could a tale about the doings to the left of the Allegheny Mountains in 1782, but the general idea is easy to understand.

So what is it that I like about westerns?

1. Research

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As I’ve said before, research is an essential part of good writing. That’s especially true if you’re going to dive into a genre that is known and defined. Yes, John Wayne schlepped a Colt Single Action Army revolver and a Winchester 1892 rifle in movies set well before those tools were available, but today, we’re less forgiving. Writers of westerns need to know the period. And that’s the thing: I love that time and place. Learning about it is fun, and I can immerse myself for hours in digging through books and websites. Of course, that can be a way to avoid writing, but we all have our weaknesses.

2. Ethos

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Remember in Lawrence of Arabia when the reporter asks our hero what attracts him to the desert? Lawrence answers, “It’s clean.” That may seem like a strange reply, given all the sweat and blood that he spills in that story, but what he meant was that the choices in a harsh environment are simple and stark. You fight with every ounce of your being to win against the odds and perhaps die anyway, or you die for sure. You survive by being worthy to meet that land and by joining in common cause with other good people. Sometimes, particularly if Clint Eastwood is the star, the morality tale becomes ambiguous, but the principle remains. A western is about good vs. evil, played out in a world that rewards the skillful.

3. Epic

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Westerns are the American genre. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner gave a speech titled, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. His thesis was that our nation is defined by the concept of a frontier, a boundless horizon over which we can always journey. The fact that our frontiers are now closed, at least until we get serious again about pushing into the final frontier, only sharpens our desire for stories about staking our claim in the freedom of the wilderness. The fact that westerns also deal with that stake being driven through the heart of those who were in that wilderness before us is a good corrective to our unrestrained impulses. More than stories about our founding, more than the woes of slavery and the Civil War, more than the fight against fascism and communism, the western is a tale of who we are.

That’s my answer to why I like westerns. I even write them, if I may promote myself, and I’d be happy to read your western manuscript. But whatever your favorite genre is, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Crossposted at English 301: Reading and Writing.

2 thoughts on “Why I Like Westerns

  1. I was nearly finished commenting, but my post flew off like a big vulture. Who knows where it wound up. Maybe on Mars.

    In my poor opinion todays Western fiction is too long on history and too short on presenting a good story. An out-of-place weapon of course is a shocker, but anything short of that, if it moves the story and the story is compelling, then that’s fine by me.

    If I want to read history that’s what I’ll read, but Western fiction stories should be entertaining above all else, and “fiction” is the key word here. History go to the encyclopedia, or read something by Evan Connell. His “Son of the Morning Star? is great reading, although he doesn’t pretend he’s writing fiction. “Crazy Horse” by a fellow named Win Blevins is another wonderful act of historical writing.

    But give me a good story when writing fiction, first, last and always. Want history I’ll go to the library.

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    • You’re creating a false dichotomy there. Barbara Tuchman, one of the finest historical writers I know of, said that history should be taught as a story. But if good writing is dull to you, there are plenty of bad writers.

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