The Long Decline
When I first began writing westerns in the 70s, for Doubleday's library line, the genre was already in decline, though I was unaware of it. The Louis L'Amour factory hid the decay from the world for another decade.
Westerns were suffering from two things: one was the sheer exhaustion of material, so that each story iterated previous ones. The other, and equally grave one, was that the world was swiftly leaving the frontier behind. Urbanization, technology, changing social mores, made stories of the Old West seem quaint, and people's lives and interests focused on the present.
Still, even before I entered the field, the western novel was important, influential, and widely enjoyed. Grey and Max Brand had popularized it. Haycox had refined it. Mainstream houses published it. Knopf published W. R. Burnett; Random and Lippincott published Will Henry. Morrow, Doubleday, and other houses published single titles.
Most of the paperback houses had western lines that produced several titles a month. Bantam put L'Amour into a separate category, but also had a western line that published several authors each month. Ace and Charter published them by the dozen, some of them the famous Ace Doubles, two novels under one cover. Fawcett had its line; Ballantine did also. Warner published them. New American Library had an extensive line. Zebra and Pinnacle churned them out. So did Berkley. Pocket Books had a fine western line. So did Avon. Then there was Comstock Editions doing specialty westerns, and Pyramid, and Ivy. Leisure was cranking up a line.
There were three main library lines, Doubleday's Double D, Walker and Company's, and M. Evans, plus several other intermittent library publishers. The Five Star library line, largely reprints but with some new titles, was also producing.
These were reinforced by scores of TV western series, which also reached exhaustion and faded away swiftly in the cultural upheavals of the sixties. Some atavistic westerns, more violent and earthy, kept the film western alive, while Berkley's erotic westerns kept the print western going through the eighties.
But the great lines were gradually dying away, and rack space was shrinking and western fiction ended up the least of the genres. Today you rarely find a western at all in a Border's store, but you will in WalMart. The genre has gone from thousands of titles a year to maybe a couple hundred, and these are badly distributed because wholesalers ignore them. Bantam tried to groom a replacement for L'Amour and utterly flopped. No amount of corporate publicity and favor could do that.
Today the remaining hardcover general trade publisher, Forge, has scaled back, and what remains is a pale ghost of what once was. Leisure mixes reprints with new titles, at reduced royalties; Pinnacle publishes a few new William Johnstones; Bantam keeps L'Amour in print. Five Star continues to mix reprints and new titles, at low royalties. Berkley's line continues, fueled by erotica. Matt Braun commands a readership. The great western novelists are dead and gone. All this is best described as a stable niche market.
Several publishers attempt to keep western fiction alive with ever-increasing levels of violence and brutality, which actually is a sign of the genre's deep decay and debasement. Ask any cultural historian about what the coarsening of an art form means. That is one of several reasons I believe the genre western's time has come and gone, and the regional literature of the west can best be told in new forms. There are gifted people recasting the West, including Margaret Coel, Craig Johnson, Mark Spragg, and Chuck Box. Let the living live, and give the dead a decent burial.
POSTED BY RICHARD S. WHEELER AT 4:35 AM 0 COMMENTS
MONDAY, MAY 31, 2010