Chapter Six Westerns

As long as the American public looks upon the history of the Old West as a romantic and nostalgic era, there will be a market for the Western novel, and this means the marketplace should be open for a good many decades to come. Few hardback houses besides Doubleday publish a large yearly list of Westerns, because there simply is not a large high-price audience for the form. On the other hand, Dell, Bantam, Fawcett, Avon, Lancer, Signet, Ballantine, and most other paperback houses release monthly Western lists. One of the canniest paperback editors working today once told me that his company occasionally lost money on some titles in every category—except the Western. No Western has ever lost them a dime. No enormous profits, you understand. Just modest but steady sales.

Advances on Westerns often average below what is paid for other kinds of category novels, unless you have an agent forceful enough to demand standard advances. Subsidiary rights are not particularly hot, though it is possible to pick up a motion picture sale and, more often, a motion picture option to buy. (See Chapter Ten, question 10, for a discussion of movie sales.) The top-flight Western writer can build a reputation that can escalate his income into pleasant tax brackets. Louis L'Amour, a continually best-selling Western author, has had several books purchased for and made into successful films and is perennially reprinted with great success. It would be impossible to estimate how much money the many westerns by Max Brand (originally the pseudonym of Frederick Faust [1892-19441) have produced for their publishers, though we could safely say the figure runs into the millions.

If your concept of the Western is highly unfavorable, and if you look upon it as an unimaginative form full of mostly bad writing, you likely have read little or nothing of what has been written in the genre in the last fifteen years. More than any other category, the Western is condemned out of hand by people who make judgments without experience and, often, by writers in other genres who would scream foul if anyone criticized their form without first having read extensively in it. Modern Western writers can and do turn out high-quality novels. Louis L'Amour is a good fast-action writer who knows how to establish his characters in short order and plunge the reader into a no-holds-barred plot progression that insures their attention to the final page. Lee Hoffman's work ranges from solid adventure novels laced with social comment, as in Wild Riders, to Western satire like The Legend of Blackjack Sam, a genuinely funny story. Brian Garfield's work has always opened new frontiers for the Western novel, exploring characters more deeply than once was the tradition of the field and using sexual encounter with the same honesty and detail found in any other genre but the Gothic. One of his best novels, Gun Down, should be proof enough to any skeptic that the Western novel is as vital as any other form. Unfortunately for the Western field, Garfield has written his last oater and is now a successful suspense and mainstream author.

Westerns, like war stories, usually paint good and evil in fairly distinct blacks and whites, at least to begin with. But one technique of characterization, used by most Western writers and visible in the vast majority of Western novels, saves the genre from the war story's simplicity and gives it verisimilitude. Most Westerns begin with a carefully delineated hero and an equally obvious villain. The protagonist seems 100% good, while the antagonist is 100% bad. However, in the course of the story's development, the hero becomes less admirable than he was at the outset, while the villain grows gradually more sympathetic and less starkly evil than he seemed in the beginning. By the climax and conclusion of the novel, the reader's main concern is still centered on the hero, but he has accepted good and evil in both antagonist and protagonist. The overwhelming thematic point of the Western is: The good man cannot remain perfectly good in a world full of evil; some of it will have to rub off on him if he is going to survive. Naturally, if that philosophical point is to be accepted, its reverse must also be true: The bad man cannot remain perfectly bad in a world that contains some good; a little of it will have to rub off on him if he is to survive. This character development resembles the changes wrought on a Gothic heroine as she passes through a story, though here the author's approach and tone must be a good bit more profound than it is in the Gothic-romance.

Brian Garfield's Gun Down uses this Western theme and style of characterization. Sam Burgade, a retired lawman, is shown in the opening sequences of the book as a man of virtue and heroism. The antagonist, Zach Provo, whom Burgade put behind prison bars, is clearly a psychopath set upon obtaining revenge. Provo escapes from prison, kidnaps Burgade's virginal young daughter, Susan, and leads the retired lawman deep into the wild country where he intends to kill him. Susan is eventually raped, by several of Provo's murderous allies, in full sight of her father, but is at least rescued from death. By the end of the novel, we have begun to sympathize somewhat with Zach Prove, because we learn that Sam Burgade accidentally shot and killed the antagonist's wife the first time he arrested him. Provo, who loved her quite a bit, has never really recovered from the loss. Burgade, on the other hand, seems to have suffered little guilt for Provo's wife's death and is too quick to write it off as being Provo's fault for having placed her in the middle of a confrontation with the law. Also, by the end, we see that Sam Burgade is a craftier, more deadly man than any of the outlaws who have taken his daughter: he kills seven of the eight and saves his daughter's life. We still prefer him to Provo and look upon him as an admirable, good man, but we no longer see him as all white and his enemies as all black.

Perhaps the major reason why this characterization gimmick has become more associated with the Western than any other genre lies in the nature of the background against which a Western is set. Most Western novels take place in the years between 1865 and 1899, when there was little organized law enforcement and when local and territorial law was often as corrupt as the outlaws it pretended to be interested in apprehending. Rich men owned the large ranches; they viciously destroyed competition and killed and financially ruined other ranchers and sheep herders. Rich men owned most of the important mines and paid little heed to prior claims staked by powerless individuals. Whole towns were often run by companies or by one or two men from whom all the money in the area generated. This was rarely a time and a place for individual enterprise unless the individual was willing to take enormous risks and was willing to fight for his own. In such a land, the outlaw could easily be elevated into the role of a folk hero. He thumbed his nose at the handful of men in power, stole from them, and fought his way free of all pursuit. To the average man of that time, the outlaw was not just a villain, a law breaker, and a thief—but something of a symbol of each man's soul set free. Unless his only crime was murder, and unless his victims were helpless women or children, no one could really view him without some favor.

Although the modern reader lives in a more civilized society, he too often feels put upon by forces too large for him to deal with—big business, large institutions, the government itself—and he can't help but sympathize a little with the man who makes his way outside traditional bounds of permissible behavior. That is not to say that he will cheer the antagonist and boo the hero. Instead, he will expect well-rounded portraits of both of them.

Just as science fiction and suspense can be broken down into a limited number of plot types, so can the Western. There are basically seven Western plot types:

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