Joyce Saricks writes that “Many librarians dismiss Westerns as a dying genre. It seems that publishers agree, since they currently reprint popular authors and titles from the past and publish fewer and fewer new titles. Still, the archetype of the lone man bringing justice has long been a dominant theme in American literature and one that still resonates with readers. Westerns were first popular as pulp fiction at the turn of the twentieth century, and their appeal was dramatized on radio and television shows and in the movies from the early years of that century through the 1960s. After languishing for several decades, Westerns are making a comeback on television and in the movies. Readers who appreciate the satisfying stories found in this genre can only hope that Western novels, such an integral part of our roots in legend and literature, will once again become a staple of our collections.” (p.313)

Defining Westerns:

Saricks explains: “In traditional Westerns we expect cowboys, cattle drives, gunslingers, adventure, and gunplay. Fans do not necessarily require historical accuracy, although they do expect realistic detail in firearms and accoutrement. However, creating a strong sense of time and place, the feel of the Old West, is essential. Westerns speak to basic, deep-seated feelings about the land and the men who brought justice to the wild, uninhabited country and thus helped make it safe for those who civilized it.

The West was viewed as a land of opportunity that offered the possibility of redemption for those who had escaped the confines of civilization. Westerns dramatize and romanticize the conflict between the civilizing influences of the East and the wild, untamed West, as they portray the dangers faced by the men who brought order to the new territory.” (p.313)

Saricks’s approach to Westerns “also encompasses Historical novels set in the West during the same time period. These Novels of the West accurately depict the western expansion and emphasize historical details and events. These titles often feature explorers as well as the settlers who stayed on to civilize the West. In addition, they frequently include strong female characters, as it is usually the women who are responsible for bringing civilization. These novels explore the issues arising in the civilizing of the West; their focus is on the people who came and stayed. Traditional Westerns, in contrast, more frequently depict the lone man riding into a community and then leaving once his job is complete.

However, as those distinctions now increasingly blur in the novels read by fans of both Westerns and Historical Fiction, the differences between the two become harder to define and less important. Western readers, generally speaking, do not require the strong historical background vital to Historical Fiction fans, but they will enjoy many of these larger, historically accurate novels, because they are set against a familiar background, just as fans of Historical Fiction about the West will appreciate the sense of time and place they find in Westerns.” (p.314)

“Westerns, then” Saricks goes on, “are novels set in the western United States (with the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers as the eastern boundaries0 primarily from the end of the Civil War to the beginning of the twentieth century. They feature the adventures of cowboys, scouts, Indians, settlers, and lawmen, and they explore the clash between civilization and anarchy in mythic stories of men and the land. While they may accurately depict the time and place in which they are set, the image and feel of the West and of those times, as well as the struggle too survive against myriad perils, take precedence over history.” (p.314)

Characteristics of Westerns

“1. The exterior descriptions of the landscape and terrain frame the books, which take place in the western United States in the decades between the Civil War and 1900. Since they may be set in unidentified places (simply the West) and in an unspecified time, they often project a sense of timelessness.

2. The traditional hero is often a loner who arrives to right wrongs and then moves on. Heroes use strategy before guns to win arguments, although they are often forced to use violence in the end.

3. Plots may be complex or more straightforward. Common themes include the redemptive power of the West, the difficulties surviving in a harsh landscape, revenge, and the lack of law along with the necessity of creating just laws.

4. Nostalgia for times past creates an elegiac tone that permeates many Westerns.

5. Pacing may be breakneck in Westerns that feature action-packed stories or more measured in others.

6. Dialogue is generally spare, colorful, and rich in jargon, but many Westerns also feature lyrical descriptions of the landscape.” (p315)

Landscape and the land – modern political importance?

Saricks also notes that “Landscape dominates the Western, and it is often so carefully drawn that it is a character itself.” (p.314) … got me thinking about Space Westerns again… and Joss Whedon’s Firefly… obviously the Western genre still has fans… and still has currency … but what part of it? landscape as character? That would almost work on a political level, because of the ‘new’ way of looking at the land that seems to have come with post-colonialism (I’m talking government and their increasing understanding of indigenous relationships with and knowledge of the land… is the land more of a character again?)

Ref: Joyce G. Saricks (2009) The Readers’ Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction (2nd edn.) American Library Association: Chicago


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