Why I like westerns, and the demise of the genre

First of all, I want you to know that I truly enjoy a good western. I haven’t always felt that way. Growing up with a father who read westerns and wanted John Wayne movies, I saw my share of schlock. And that, I think, is what has led to the demise of the genre.

The fifties and sixties showed an overabundance of western stories in literature, on TV and in movies. But what happens when a theme is popular? It becomes an invitation for mediocrity and cliches. You see the same thing happening in my other favorite genre, science fiction. In the fifties and sixties, every science fiction movie dealt either with radiation or space exploration. After a while, they all started looking the same.

When Star Wars came out in 1979, there was a sudden flurry of look-alike stories–all of them space opera. Star Wars isn’t good science fiction; in a lot of ways it shouldn’t even be considered part of the genre. Really, it’s fantasy. And when people who don’t know the genre begin writing or directing in the field, you get schlock. Or people lean on the tried and true and you get cliches.

What westerns need is one good story that will be accepted by the mainstream. The last good big budget western movie that I can think of is “Silverado.” Another one that I really like is “Hidalgo,” with Viggo Mortensen. But neither made that big of a splash.

Science fiction, for the most part isn’t about science, just as westerns are really about the west. They are about people. Characters in science fiction stories have to deal with issues related to technology, just as we have to deal with technology every day. Westerns are about dealing with conflict on a very basic level–and that’s what I like about them. They are usually not sophisticated at all, in fact, they shun sophistication. The true western hero is very honest and very direct. He may be rough around the edges, but he gets the job done. And he often has a talent for seeing through all the bull that others are blinded by.

It’s been my pleasure to write a western steampunk novel, Tom Horn vs. The Warlords of Krupp, which unites alternate history with the western. It was a lot of fun writing it, and I plan on writing a sequel soon. For me, Tom Horn embodies all of the joys of the good western with the new twist that comes with alternate history.

I’d like to hear if you have any favorite western stories. Or if you disagree on what killed the genre.

3 thoughts on “Why I like westerns, and the demise of the genre

  1. Don’t count a good western down. The idea and ton of westerns are making a resurgence in what I call “Modern Western.” They take place in modern times, but have the same feel as the old west stories. Take, for example, the series Justified. It really does feel like a western in modern clothing. It has a protagonist that is honorable and tends, putting justice over the law. He also tends to shoot first and ask questions later. His life is a bit messed up, but he slowly seems to be working things out. It really reminds me of some of the best westerns I watched in my youth, like the Searchers with John Wayne. I really enjoy Justified and I Know there are other shows coming out like it, including one called Longmire, which just started.

    Western as literary genre will resurge, I think. But It may be in af orm that isn’t strictly about the old west…much like the above TV shows and your steampunk Western. The genre is so ingraned in the American culture, I don’t think it’ll be down for long.

    1. Silverado is one of my favorite westerns. I would also say that Tombstone and Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven were pretty great too…but you’re right. The genre is falling by the wayside.

  2. Good to get a number of viewpoints on the genre. I write about Westerns over at http://www.westernsreboot.com and feel that pronouncements of the genre’s death have that “Mark Twain” quality….i.e. when he said that the reports of his death were exaggerated, ha.

    I will say that for the current teenaged and young adult generation that the video game Red Dead Redemption (2010) is drawing a whole new demographic toward the genre. If interested, I did a post about that phenomenon at: http://westernsreboot.com/2011/10/16/for-each-generation-a-western%E2%80%A6-video-game/

    I believe that this game may in fact be the most important work of the Western genre – be it film, fiction or art – in a generation if it is now drawing a young audience to the genre.


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