Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Richard S. Wheeler: The Long Decline

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.
MONDAY, MAY 31, 2010


Larry D. Sweazy said...

I write an original series for Berkley, and am proud to do so. My books, the Josiah Wolfe, Texas Ranger series, do not have one shit, goddamn, f**k, or engorged member on its pages. Mr Wheeler should do his research before he demeans a line that continues to contribute to the health of the genre, whether he thinks so or not.

Anonymous said...

Richard S. Wheeler: The Long Decline pretty much sums it up.

Anonymous said...

My local Borders has a pretty healthy (though small compared to mystery, romance & SF) Western section. Granted, a large chunk of it is L'Amour, who bores the crap out of me. But there are occasionally good authors like Ed Gorman and Lauren Paine and Loren Estleman.

Jeff P.

RJR said...

Violence and brutality? Erotica? Sounds like Dick has become a prude and longs for the day when cowboys kissed their horses. Sorry, Dick, those days really are gone. But you know, cowboys did curse and kiss girls, and occasionally were violent. The fact that nobody used to write about that in the old days doesn't make those days better. Just different.
When I joined WWA in 1982 the line had already been drawn between "traditional" western writers and "Adult" western writers. Only lots of "traditional" writers hid behind the house names and wrote "Adult" westerns. In fact, at that time at least three former Presidents of WWA were writing Longarm. I guess that was okay because they needed the money. One well respected western writer refused to give me a quote for my first Gunsmith book because he coulb't be seen endorsing an adult western. Several years later he had his own series at Avon. Too bad it only lasted three books.



Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

RJR is right, and unfortunately for some of us it's not only Mr Wheeler who might have become a prude.

Some of the "adult" westerns in their boom years could be unbelievably silly, but the argument that the western must be "pure" will not bring the genre a modern, informed audience. And what kind of modern audience is there for text fiction other than one that is informed? Minimal research quickly tells you the assumption that the Old West was peopled by its own version of knights in shining armor and innocent maidens is totally misguided. Yet we now have at least one publishing house in the UK that has changed its policy, presumably to accommodate the new moral right it imagines to be the people reading its westerns. The company's chairman and managing director has cited defense of his public library market as justification, saying "there is nothing to stop children borrowing these books." He has added that his decisions are "governed entirely by what we believe our customers want. Our customers are not the public as such but public librarians and needless to say that is why Avalon [another company aiming for library business] insist on their books being squeaky clean. They have an even more demanding public library system than we do and one can just imagine what some of their Bible-bashers from the South would say about MISFIT LIL CHEATS THE HANGROPE. We are not concerned here with the merits or otherwise of the story."

Anonymous said...

Okay, the genre is no longer the huge cultural powerhouse it once was. And Mr. Wheeler doesn't much like the westerns he sees being published now.

So everybody currently in love with one of the most singular genres created in this country should just abandon it, "bury" it as dead, and start reading the stuff Mr. Wheeler thinks is better.


And you know what else?
Jazz isn't what it used to be either. Seems to me much degraded from its former glory.
Abandon it. Right now. And start listening to this neo-Aztec-disco I've been getting into lately.

And lastly...
"Several publishers attempt to keep western fiction alive with ever-increasing levels of violence and brutality"
Which publishers? Where? Got anything currently in print that can touch George Gilman's 1970's series about Edge for sheer glorified blood n' gore?
I must have missed it.

John Hocking

Matt said...

On the other hand, Elmore Leonard just moved his westerns to Detroit and Miami and seemed to survive okay...

D.M. McGowan said...

There are hundreds (if not thousands) of great frontier stories out there from new authors. New story lines, new takes on old plots, new locations ... all of them entertaining and sometimes educational.
The marketing and promotion by the publishers mentioned, however is allmost non-existent.
People will buy it if they know it's there and they can get it. If they have to go looking for it (as opposed to tripping over it) they probably won't.

Kit Prate said...

I write fan fic for a western series from the late 60's; and it is being read and requested by women readers who all decry the fact they can't find enough good westerns on the shelf to sate their needs.

And they like their stuff gritty, with realistic characters who have weaknesses and flaws; and most of all they want COWBOYS.

Go figure.

Kenneth Mark Hoover said...

Westerns are in decline, but the genre isn't in its death throes by any means.

Good writers are still working in the field and trying to lift the genre up from its cliche-ridden past. I'm pretty optimistic about the future of this genre, actually.