Science fiction grew up in the New Wave era. That’s when editors and writers began to push the genre past its pulpish roots and demand better writing, better stories, better literature overall. Readers responded. SF literature will never return to its past of Flash Gordon rockets and bug-eyed monsters in anything other than nostalgic retrospective, or self-parody. And that’s a good thing.
Science fiction grew up. Took it a while, but it did. Mystery has long been mature since Poe. Horror was born mature. Even romance, sometimes nailed for its frivolity, is/was a mature and serious genre.
Not so westerns. I see a lot of bad elements in this genre, a genre I currently work in and love. It’s like myth and stereotype are considered the norm. Way too many writers seem to be okay with that.
That really bothers me.
I’m not talking about the writing itself. There is bad writing in every genre. I’m talking about the perpetuation of myth and hoary stereotype as the foundation for the genre itself. That bothers me because it’s a sign of laziness from the writers and no expectation of anything other than sameness on the part of the reader.
Yeah. That’s upsetting to me. These are people who view Matt Dillon and Kitty Russell as iconic, Americanized and Anglo-perfected figures, instead of the flawed characters John Meston intended them to be: A violent psychopath aborning and a two-dollar ragged-out whore with no future. Two lost people marking time with each other as the land and culture change irrevocably around them. That’s what Gunsmoke was about, envisioned by its creator, John Meston. He went out of his way to challenge every stereotype and myth perpetuated by people like Howard Hawkes and John Ford, along with cartoonish icons like Roy Rogers, the Cisco Kid, Tom Mix, and the Lone Ranger. Kid stuff. Maudlin melodrama. Popcorn.
That took real courage on Meston’s part, his desire to bring a level of adult power to the western genre. I respect that. I respect anyone who is willing to buck the system and challenge trends and expectations.
There are good writers out there working right now to change the genre. Ed Gorman. Loren D. Estleman. Matt Braun to some extent, though he can be iffy. In the weird west category Jennifer Brozek comes directly to mind as one of my contemporaries. But these people are/were good writers to begin with, so it’s no surprise they write westerns that don’t depend on hoary myth as a backdrop, or mawkishness as a foundation.
As a reader I personally enjoy stories that challenge perception and expectation. Stories that elevate the reader’s experience and broadens their emotional horizon always have my respect. All good stories do that on some level. All good writers do that. Popcorn is fun to munch on, but it’s not good for long term sustenance.
I think the one medium where westerns have gone a long way in growing up are, surprisingly, the movies. There are still western cartoons being produced, or aspects of western cartoons. But there have been many fine adult western movies that push the envelope. I see many more examples of that in movies than I do in current literature.
It’s a shame. I don’t know why western literature can’t seem to grow out of its juvenile past. But I refuse to write pulp, or myth, or stereotype. I know it’s the accepted norm in a lot of western literature. But I will sail my ship alone.