Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Scouting the Web

■ The next big Western release is upon us. The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is one strange beast: a $30 million film which for some odd reason went the limited release route. Based on the 1983 novel by Ron Hansen, it's generated relatively favorable reviews as well as some interesting media coverage. Among the latter figures this piece from The Washington Post on the "real" Jesse James.

Ivan Doig will receive the 2007 Wallace Stegner Award for his contribution to the American West.

■ Some of the commentaries in this blog have alluded to the need to expand the number of topics that Westerns traditionally deal with. Others have suggested mixing Westerns with other genres such as mysteries (for some examples, see this excellent January Magazine article by Bill Crider from a while back) or even horror and fantasy. While this might attract newer readers it can also alienate some Western purists, among whom I tend to count myself.

Emma Bull brings us a Western with fantastic elements in her latest novel, Territory. Described as "a 'retelling' of the events between Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, Ike Clanton and the McLaury brothers in Tombstone," it is the subject of a glowing review in the latest edition of Bookslut (don't be deceived by its name. It is a pretty good online publication and its blog was once listed by The Guardian as one of the top 10 literary blogs on the web).

■ The latest issue of True West magazine is out. Its online version includes an in-depth article on 3:10 to Yuma but I'd recommend everyone to grap a copy of the magazine, if only for its excellent article on Frederic Remington and his use of photographies in some of his paintings.

■ Last time, I mentioned Many Books.net as an excellent resource for online, out-of-print Westerns. Well, here's another one: Munseys.com. Its Westerns section is a sight to behold.

■ The latest online issue of Western writer Chap O'Keefe's Black Horse Extra is also out. The September - November 2007 edition includes an interview with Black Horse Westerns (BHW) cover artist Michael Thomas as well as its very entertaining news and trivia section, "Hoofprints".

I can not stress enough what a remarkable job the UK-based publisher Robert Hale Publishing is doing to help keep the Western alive via BHW and its monthly output of new titles. BHW authors maintain a robust presence on the web, including the online magazine The Black Horse Express as well as a very lively Yahoo Group.

■ The 59th Primetime Emmy Awards were recently unveiled. In spite of leading in the number of nominations, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and Broken Trail did not win nearly as many awards. The ones they did earn, however, speak for themselves.

Broken Trail obtained the Emmy for Outstanding Casting for a Miniseries, Movie or a Special as well as for Outstanding Miniseries. Cast members Robert Duvall and Thomas Haden Church earned statuettes for leading actor and supporting actor, respectively. Meanwhile, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was named best made-for-TV movie.

■ The Overlook Press has issued a new edition of Charles Portis' classic True Grit with an afterword by Donna Tartt (not a Western writer but the author, nonetheless, of one of my favorite novels: The Secret History). The reprint is the subject of an interesting commentary in Paper Cuts, The New York Times' book blog.

■ In his blog, Robert B. Parker muses some more about the upcoming feature film based on his Western novel Appaloosa. The project was green lighted by New Line Cinema in April and it will star Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. According to the MTV Movies Blog, Jeremy Irons has just signed on to join the all-star ensemble.

6 comments:

Richard S. Wheeler said...

I'm interested in your comment about whether western fiction should expand, or remain in its narrow classic form.

I'm going to get myself into serious trouble with western readers here and confess that traditional westerns have worn out their welcome in my reading pile. I love to write them because I can attempt something novel and fresh; I don't love to read them any more, and sometimes I simply hate the damned things. (I've given up reviewing them for The Roundup magazine because of my antagonism toward them.)

I read my first western over 50 years ago, and they haven't changed significantly in the half a century that followed. The same few stories are retold. If anything, the western field was broader back then than it is now. The classic western is about ballsy men settling their issues by violence, and that gets old.

So, I confess they mostly repel me now, and I've gone on to other literature. I do read mysteries set in the west, such as Margaret Coel's brilliant series set on the Wind River Reservation. But that's about as close as I get to traditional western fiction now.

Gonzalo Baeza said...

I should have clarified my remarks on “expanding” the genre. I was referring to some of the comments people have left on this blog. I’m all for new perspectives for the Western genre and as many authors we’ve interviewed have pointed out, you don’t need to go any further than actual history and the numerous historical episodes and characters that haven’t been dealt with so far in the fiction of the West.

I enjoy traditional Westerns but, then again, I probably haven’t read enough nor for such a sustained amount of time. I’ll concede, however, that many of them tend to be formulaic. Nonetheless, I still think they should have a place on the shelves even if not such a prominent one. When I said I might not be keen on the idea of mixing genres (such as Western and horror or Western and fantasy) I didn’t mean to imply that those attempts should be discarded automatically. A well-written book is a good book regardless of what genre conventions it adheres to or chooses to subvert. What I should have stated more clearly is that I don’t think the salvation of the genre – if it is at all in need of salvation – lies in simply churning out more Western romances, futuristic Westerns, “weird” Westerns, etc. and basically go out of the confines of the West instead of delving into all of its rich history that remains untapped.

Chap O'Keefe said...

Bravo, Richard! I'm not exactly repelled by traditional westerns, and I try to read a good selection by many authors, if only to keep Black Horse Extra "honest" as a broad sweep across the scene it's intended to cover. But like you I do have a sinking feeling when I meet the same old "black" and "white" characters and the stories are mainly about property theft (e.g. rustling) or "vengeance trails" (your "ballsy men settling their issues by violence"). My fellow BHWer David Whitehead had this to say in a recent interview and I'm right behind him:

"For me, a new book always begins with one basic, I hope 'different' idea. The idea has to be new and original, otherwise it’s hard to get excited about it. I want to appeal to both the traditional and modern western reader, but not give him that dreaded sense of déjà vu where he thinks, 'Here we go again. Another range war. Another band of renegade Indians. Another outlaw gang trying to recover lost loot.' "

He also said: "The single biggest development has been the awareness of just how important character is in a story. In the early days, characters were clear-cut -- with one or two exceptions -- and cardboard in the extreme. But in the early 1950s a new breed of western writer came along, and decided to mix a little of the good and the bad into their characters."

Depth of character is surely the key -- much more so than gimmicks like introducing the supernatural or describing in great and authentic detail a particular piece of weaponry.

One of the best comments I've read in all the recent Yuma reviews was in the Houston Chronicle. It said "Great western drama doesn't erupt from the barrel of a gun so much as burn from the depths of a human heart."

I've recently completed an article for the next BH Extra on my novel Peace at Any Price (which was written more than a year ago), where I tell how I tried to explain this very theory not by further declaration but by practical demonstration in the short format of a BHW, a line which supposedly continues to ride the "traditional" trail.

I don't know whether the western can be made novel and fresh, but you can be sure, Richard, that writers other than myself are working hard on the task!

Anonymous said...

This is a subject very close to my heart, as I love the Western, and I think if "purists" have their own way, the western may well be headed for the long predicted decline. Westerns have so much to offer, with its rich background and history to draw from. One of my favourite BHW authors, as I have mentioned before, is Lance Howard, or Howard Hopkins. All his novels are character based, and really draw the reader in with a rich mix of tension. They also push the boundaries of the western, mixing in other genres such as suspense and mystery. There have been quite a few I have read in one sitting as I could not put them down! Well worth a read!

Catherine

Howard said...

Intersting thread. I for one do enjoy the traditional westerns and don't get tired of most of them and love reading westerns that blend genres. I do have to say in regards to Mr. Wheeler, he probably holds the title for my favorite western with Montana Hitch. I was damn near bawling with the lead character in that book, and as much as I like Matt Braun, Suzanne Ledbetter and a couple others, that book still is at the top of my list. It's the first western I normally recommend to someone starting out, along with Ledbetter's Vengeance Trail (which is a unique perspective on that particular convention and the protagonist is a woman.) Thanks, Catherine, for the rec. I think Black Horse has a number of fine writers working to add something to the traditional side of things (and if you get a dry one at least they are short, though if you aren't near a library stocking them they'll set you back a few bucks.)

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