Monday, January 10, 2011

Outside the Definitions

In the glossary of my Novel and Short Story Writer's Market book, I found these two definitions:
Historical fiction. A fictional story set in a recognizable period of history. As well as telling the stories of ordinary people's lives, historical fiction may involve political or social events of the time.

Western. Genre with a setting in the West, usually between 1860 - 1890, with a formula plot about cowboys or other aspects of frontier life [my emphasis].
If I have any kind of modest ambition for my writing, outside of writing good books that people will enjoy, it's to write something that successfully disproves that second definition. Better yet, something that successfully combines elements of both genres - for most booksellers do list them as two entirely separate genres, although there is a little muddled crossover here and there. Louis L'Amour hit the nail right on the head when he said, "If you write a book about a bygone period that lies east of the Mississippi River, then it's a historical novel. If it's west of the Mississippi, it's a western, a different category. There's no sense to it."

You could talk and speculate a good deal over what gave the western genre its present reputation. I think it may actually be because the western was so hugely popular in the earlier part of the 20th century - the demand for more probably led to flooding the market with a lot of hastily-written books that did indeed have formula plots, and moreover, I think a 'popular' movement in culture tends to be dismissed as trivial once it's died off a little. Certainly some popular things deserve to die off. But that brings me back to where I started, because I don't think the western deserved it. It was more than just a popular trend; it's a part of American history. And like L'Amour, I think it's an important part of our history. Yes, we all know there's legend and myth mixed with the facts, but they've become a part of our culture the same way King Arthur and Robin Hood - part fact, part legend - are instantly identifiable with old England. And there is a lot more besides the myths. The "stories of ordinary people's lives" from the frontier are just as significant and fascinating as the legends.

Perhaps another reason is that there is not a notable Western-set novel among the 'great books' (admittedly a subjective term) of American literature. There are certain novels that are considered the finest of the western genre, but how often do they show up on lists of great American literature in general?

I guess that leaves an opportunity for the present-day author. The place is why not try to fill it?


Ron Scheer said...

Very well said. Richard Wheeler over at Curmudgeon's Diary has been discussing this matter. He is both a historical and western writer.

Gene Rhodes, 75 years ago, made a distinction between "western stories" and "westerns," that is stories written to formula. He dismissed the latter as uniformly trashy. TRUE GRIT is very much an example of the former. So is LONESOME DOVE. I'm hoping for a resurgence of western stories either in print or on screen.

Elisabeth said...

I read Wheeler's interview at Writers of the West, and I particularly liked his last piece of advice - to write all different types of stories set in the West rather than 'westerns.' One thing I've always wanted to try is a traditional whodunit murder-mystery set in the old West.

Ron Scheer said...

W. C. Tuttle was writing mysteries set in the Old West. You may have seen the review I did last week of THICKER THAN WATER. If I were writing fiction these days, I'd be tempted to try it, too.

I Just Know Everything said...

I have a book for you to add to your list. It's a Christmas book, but I just finished it yesterday (I am behind in my reading.) "Merry Merry Ghost" by Carolyn Hart is the book. It's a contemporary mystery set in Oklahoma. Your post on westerns made me want to tell you about it. I've never been a western fan, but I liked this book. I suppose the fact that it is set in present times made it more palatable for me, but you might like the western elements.

Elisabeth said...

Thanks for thinking of me - I'll have to look it up.

jtwebster books said...

Interesting post. I'm writing an historical that is set in Wyoming 1880s. That pretty much makes it a Western, to lot of people, but that's not what I set out to write. I see it as no different to the stories I've written set in 19th century New Zealand. The setting is just different: flora, fauna, geography and the social, political environment.

Lonesome Dove would be up there with 'great books' of American Literature, wouldn't it? He won a Pulitzer with it.

A who-dunnit set in the West would be great, Elisabeth. I hope you give it a go sometime.