Why do I like Westerns so much? Why do Western stories—the characters, the settings, the situations, the writing styles, the tropes—resonate so profoundly with me? Anthologies like Express Westerns’ A Fistful of Legends edited by Nik Morton and Charles T. Whipple always get me thinking about the power of Western fiction. Legends came out in 2009 and contains 21 original Western stories.
In his introduction to the anthology, novelist (and legend) James Reasoner speaks lovingly of the Western’s “tremendous power to entertain” and its “universality”:
You can tell any sort of story as a Western: comedy, tragedy, action, romance. You can pit man against nature, man against his fellow man, man against himself – or woman against herself, since strong female characters have been a tradition in Westerns going back decades…
In many ways, the Western genre remains as boundless and new as the Western frontier once was. Just west of that ridge, as it were, anything is possible. And as a result, the genre, like the characters and settings at its core, is larger than life.
Below the brief bios, eight of the contributors to A Fistful of Legends talk about the power of the Western.
Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin is the author of The Tarnished Star, Arkansas Smith, and the forthcoming The Ballad of Delta Rose.
Raymond Foster/Jack Giles is the author of Coalmine, The Fourth Horseman, and Lawmen.
C. Courtney Joyner is a screenwriter and director who also writes fiction and non-fiction, including The Westerners: Interviews with Actors, Directors and Writers.
In the introduction to A Fistful of Legends, James Reasoner says, “Western fiction has a tremendous power to entertain.” Where does that power come from and in what ways do you tap into when you write about the West?
Gary Dobbs/Jack Martin: The central strength of the Western is its optimism and sense of individualism–the optimism of the golden future around the next bend, or across that creek. And the sense that an individual can exist on his/her own strengths and not rely on state handouts. There’s a great feeling of newness in the Western genre–a new land, an untamed frontier. Add all that together and you have the perfect recipe for both adventure and romance. Come on, who can resist that?
C. Courtney Joyner: I think Western fiction’s power to entertain comes from two places: the iconic nature of the subject matter, and the reader’s own built-in associations with Westerns. The history of the West as we know it, from books or movies or TV, is a part of the American consciousness; our brains are wired into the genre simply because we’ve learned about the origins of our own country and heritage in the classroom or the movies. Sometimes the history ain’t too accurate, but it sure as hell is exciting!
Bobby Nash: Western fiction, like any good fiction, is meant to entertain. Can there be social commentary? Sure. Does there have to be? Not really. The Western is part and parcel of American history. Whether you’re a fan of the genre or not, you’ve undoubtedly seen at least one Western movie or TV show, or you’ve studied some of the heroes and villains of the Wild West in school. With Westerns, your heroes tend to be larger than life, braving an untamed wilderness, battling against the elements, fending off attacks from savages, or standing up to the scheming land barons trying to take their land. How can those struggles not be entertaining reads?
Alfred Wallon: It has something to do with the fact that most of us have grown up with this kind of literature. I’ve been reading Westerns since my early childhood, and I’ve always been fascinated with them. Maybe it´s because of the fact that a good Western contains nearly everything which makes a good story: interesting characters, high moral and ethic values and the dream to find out what´s behind the horizon….
C. Courtney Joyner: Anyone who picks up a Western is ready for a journey, even if they’ve never read a Western novel before, because they’ve seen the images of Eastwood and The Duke riding the open range, and standing tall against the odds.
Raymond Foster/Jack Giles: The visual West comes even more alive with the power of the descriptive word. Owen Wister, Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour paint word pictures that fire up the imagination.
Matthew P. Mayo: Engaging, successful Western fiction is often peopled with ordinary people forced into extraordinary levels of endeavor. It rouses the intrepid, self-reliant pioneer spirit in many of us. Unfortunately, that’s a feeling that, day by day, we seem to be losing, for various reasons. Fortunately, we have touchstones such as Westerns to help remind us, guide us in our own quests, and offer us inspiration. Tapping into it comes from tapping into that aforementioned feeling of self-reliance and right-over-wrong. Inspiration for such feelings can come from taking in the day’s news and hearing about all the injustices perpetrated on the oppressed masses by privileged idiots the world over. The same thing happened in the 19th century West.
C. Courtney Joyner: In a world where we have so little personal control over our destinies, and being an individual has become more and more difficult, readers and watchers want to embrace the values and feelings of that simpler time, (and what we imagine) a simpler world. One man making a difference. We would like to be able to stand up and be counted, and if we can’t do that in our everyday lives, we can do it all in the pages of a good Western.
Raymond Foster/Jack Giles: Let’s see–the Western has tremendous power to entertain. Guess you could say that the power comes, in part, from a mis-spent childhood falling in love with the Western myth.
The West was an iconic period in the history of the United States but as a kid growing up on the streets of North London, I didn’t know that. Hopalong Cassidy was as real as Jesse James; the Lone Ranger as real as Wyatt Earp and so on. Fact and fiction was a blur when I was running around being the fastest draw on the street.
Nik Morton/Ross Morton: The Western story tends to possess a strong moral sense. It’s not simplistic good vs. bad, however; it somehow uses the history and the landscape to evoke mythic realism while revealing the human condition.
Alfred Wallon: A fellow writer once asked me an interesting question, “What do Homer´s Odyssey and a Western story have in common?” The answer is quite simple: “The weapons are different, but the quest is the same…”
Charles T. Whipple/Chuck Tyrell: To me the West is a period of growth. It can show how people create a community, how towns and people move from might is right to rule by law and compassion. In the Western, there is little help from “Big Brother,” at least in our age of Western writing. (There was a time, such as when Elmore Leonard was first writing in the 1950s, when US Army vs. Apaches was the basic story line.)
The Western allows a hero to be bigger than life. It allows women to be strong and willful. It allows the country to be a character. It allows people to make tremendous changes in their lives. It allows outlaws to have a heart. It allows heroes to come back from disfigurement and near death. It allows authors to address some of the problems of today’s society in terms nearer to black and white.
And the Western allows good people to come out ahead.
Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher. He is the staff Interviewer for Clarkesworld Magazine and a frequent contributor to Kobold Quarterly. He teaches at Wofford College and Montessori Academy in Spartanburg, SC. He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp for teenagers that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.