Changing the Western (for the better)

While I was attending SoonerCon a week or so ago a writer friend relayed a conversation she had with a family member.Hoover-8

She said the uncle stated he liked to watch westerns because “they were real.”

She proceeded to tell him, No, they were not real, but only Hollywood’s version of the Old West.  What he saw on television and movies was not in any sense “history” or “reality” of what the Old West was truly like.  He was being sold a bill of goods. Period.

I work in the western genre. Not exclusively, but I toil there quite a bit as readers of this blog know. I’ve seen this before. I know mythology and cliche has been elevated to historical status in some areas. Frankly, I find this depressing, because if this is all we have, if things don’t change, then this genre will never change.

And it needs to change.

The idea of the iconic western is an extremely powerful story telling tool. I use it all the time. It’s also the whole frontier mentality that makes much of science fiction accessible to readers and fans alike. But westerns are earth-bound. We can readily identify with that. Hell, even Star Wars was a western, and Star Trek often used western elements.

They are used because they are powerful.

Here’s what I would like to see. I’d like to see a western novel where there were no guns. Historically, most people never owned, carried, or used one. That’s historical fact. I’d like to see stories about that.

I’d also like to see more stories from, and about, women and POC. Because, you know, they actually existed back then.

It’s easy to slipstream behind Hollywood tropes. Cliches are the easy way out. Example: the iconic gun fight a la High Noon.

I agree this all makes for great television. But that’s not how they fought. Gunfighters did not meet each other on the street. They shot each other in the back and through windows. It was gang warfare. No one in their right mind would stand with a gun 15-feet away from another man with a gun in an open street. These weren’t dueling Knights of Old, which is where this myth was appropriated.

I remember visiting the Flats near Fort Griffin while doing research for Quaternity. I came across a first person account of a town sheriff or marshal who jailed a man and then shot him through the bars and killed him because “he was too mean.”

Now I want you to stop and think about that a bit and then get back to me.

To be sure, not every man and woman behaved like this, and it would be ridiculous to assume otherwise. But they weren’t Knights from the Round Table, either. They just were not.

There are three gunfights in my novel Haxan. None of them go according to Hoyle because it NEVER happened the way Hollywood sold it.

I’m also getting a little worn out with the romantic notions that permeate too much of what I see. Men and women of all races, all religions, all creeds, struggled every day to survive in the Old West. Just like they do today.

There’s nothing romantic about that.

Mythology is not history. Cliches are not a foundation to build on. Well, I mean, you can, if you want. If we write the same stories over and over, and don’t push the envelope, this genre will not evolve. It won’t die. As I said up at the top the idea of the western is too atavistic for that to happen.

The western will never die. That’s a good thing, in my opinion because it’s an interesting setting in which to tell stories about people.

But maybe it’s time to step away from the romantic ideals of an age that never existed, either, and write something different. There are many western writers right now doing exactly that. Their voices are few.

I’d like to see more.

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