I am reminded of a quote by Jack Handey:
Quotes like these remind us why he is our nation’s greatest quote-laureate. But apart from that: cowboys.
Or, more specifically, westerns.
Today, they are little more than a curiosity. Oh, people still remember them, and, in some cases, people still make them, but “western” is not often considered a genre anymore. At best, it’s considered a niche, like talking-animal stories or pregnancy-horror movies. At worst, “western” is considered a backdrop. If it takes place in the southwestern United States and somehow involves horses, it’s a western.
The long-forgotten Secret
But there was a time, not so long ago, when western was not only a genre, but the top dog of all possible story scenarios—at least for Americans. This cannot be understated. At its peak, the Great American Western was more iconic and essential than the superhero genre is today, by at least three orders of magnitude.
“It’s true, Timmy: the Lone Ranger was once more famous than Superman.”
It was a time when cowboys were the greatest heroes imaginable. Their stories enthralled multiple generations within every family. And every theme and issue known to humankind was encompassed within the idea of the American West as a land of high adventure. For much of our culture’s formative history, westerns were our shared scripture.
What was the Appeal?
I’m going to go out on an editorial limb here and say that the central idea of all westerns, as a genre, was self-governance. The American West was, during the period depicted in these stories, a lawless land, unbound to the enforcement of far reaching and potentially invasive legal strictures under which so many of us live today. In its idealized form, the west was a libertarian utopia. Granted, such an environment allowed for unbridled criminal activity, but also the freedom to write one’s own destiny.
In a nutshell: this lawless land was home to bandits and killers who would not hesitate to take what was yours, but there was no prohibitions to keep you from defending your own property. As an individual, you were not dependent on the virtue and competence of the faceless “system” to protect your liberties. Instead, you handed the reigns over to the best imaginable hands: your own. If misfortune befell you, or you lost your property, that was tragic, but you were never put in a position where you were powerless to do anything except pray that the world’s authorities would take notice of your plight and throw you a half-hearted bone.
Another appeal, I believe, was family history.
Look, Mom, Grandpa’s on TV Again.
We would do well to remember that the twentieth century was not far removed from the time when cowboys, westward expansion, the railroad, and gold prospecting were all real and even common. The western genre started getting popular during this era, but only reached its mega-genre status decades later, during the early decades of the 1900s.
As the years wore on, most people did not remain in lawless land. Cities were built up, and society reaffirmed its structure, for better or worse. But many of the domesticated people in that society had relatives who had come from the earlier, lawless era. Thousands of “family lore” stories had been passed down from the heyday of the American West. And when little Timmy saw the cowboys on TV doing a cattle run, his mother could say, “That’s what it was like for Grandpa when he was growing up.” With a little prodding, the memorized stories would pour forth, mingling with the tales from the TV, until it wasn’t just a bunch of cowboys doing a cattle run and fighting off rustlers. It was Grandpa and his friends. It would be like watching the closing credits of Marvel’s The Avengers, only to have your mother lean over and say, “That’s not the way my uncle Steve told it, and they didn’t even mention the part where he permanently broke Loki’s teeth with his shield.”
“Tell me that did not just happen.”
A Reading Rainbow
And, while I have paid a great deal of attention to TV and Movies in this post, it is only fair to point out that the western genre, as with so many other kinds of stories, got its start in books.
There were great classics, written by such prestigious names as Zane Grey
and Louis L’amour
None of which would have the faintest hope of getting published today.
A Kiss of Death
That’s right: you cannot conceivably publish a western novel in the present day. There are exceptions, naturally, and there are always niche periodicals that deal exclusively with esoteric genres. But for the most part, westerns are radioactive. They’re right down there with poetry, as far as publication opportunities are concerned.
I’d like to take this moment to say “sorry” to all the poets out there. Ahem…I am sorry you threw your lives away. There, I said it.
The examples of this are many. When researching agents, for instance, you’ll find that “western” consistently falls into the “Will not represent under any circumstance” pile. This is particularly telling because, aside from westerns, the genres an agent refuses to address will vary widely from agent to agent. Some won’t touch children’s lit. Some won’t touch fantasy or horror. Others forsake fiction altogether. But almost all of them will reject westerns without even reading the query. And while the modern western isn’t exactly dead, it has largely been reserved for the ultra-privileged. If your name is “the Coen Brothers,” then fine, we’ll indulge your eccentric tastes and allow you to make a cowboy-western flick, on the condition that it’s a remake (because we’re not going to risk our investment on something that’s a western and an unvetted property).
You also have to put Matt Damon in it, because we’re not throwing good money at a bad genre unless it has star power attached.
Other than that, you can’t get a western greenlit in this day and age.
That said, the classic western still has a lot of fans in the present day and time. And a great many of those fans are authors and creators. This has led to a bizarre situation, because the desire to publish new westerns is still there, but market pressures only allow those to be greenlit if they are dressed up as something else. That’s why our culture has seen so many hybrid “mutant westerns” as of late,
such as the space-opera western
the sci-fi comedy-adventure westerrn
and, naturally, the anime samurai hip-hop western.
Obviously, there is still a need for people to keep telling these stories, so why has it become so hard for them to reach an audience. To quote a once-famous song, Where have all the cowboys gone?
Why did the traditional cowboy western die out?
Based on the topics we have already discussed, it could be a number of reasons.
It could be that most people today don’t have immediate relatives who lived in that era, and so the magic of uncle Steve breaking Loki’s teeth has been lost.
It could be that the western was supplanted by emerging genres, with people becoming more enamored with space travel and stories about the two World Wars, which, admittedly, dwarfed the kinds of conflicts common in the Old West.
It could be that, as modern comforts became more ubiquitous, people began to lose their admiration for cowboys, pioneers, and all those who roughed it in the old west. Or maybe they just stopped liking horses.
But I fear that the real reason is something far more complex and far more basic.
You’ll remember that I said that the central idea of the western was one of self-governance—that it was centered on a libertarian appeal to absolute freedom. It seems to me that as structured society settled in, and more and more people came to respect central authorities and even depend on them for their livelihoods, the ideals of the Wild West faded into obscurity. The idea of unlimited freedom only felt liberating to those who distrusted the people in power, but trust in authority figures was on the rise in the early twentieth century, due in large part to America’s economic and diplomatic growth over the course of those years. This nationwide satisfaction with the governing system led to the long, slow decline of the cowboy, until he was little more than a memory.
Old Things have Become New
Which brings us to today. We live in an era where people say, “Change is good.” But a lot of them don’t understand what that means. A lot of them seem to think that change only works in one direction. The idea being that every generation who came before us were stupid or ignorant or just plain horrible, and that any movement away from what came before is, by default, smart and good and better for everyone.
A lot of them, when they see movement in our culture, just shrug and say, “Things change.”
But that means that things can also change back to the way they were before.
Trust in authority, which grew in popularity during the early twentieth century, has imploded. The biggest conflicts in society today gravitate around the issue that we just don’t trust our leaders anymore. We don’t believe they can protect us, and we have some reason to believe that they don’t even want to. Amidst the chaos, a lot of minds are reexamining the concept of self-governance.
There is even a genre of stories that has come to represent this growing dissatisfaction. It is only a few decades old, but has been growing in popularity since its inception.
Most people refer to this genre as “cyberpunk”.
The New Wild West
Many commentators already refer to the internet as the new Wild West. It is a lawless place, where you can be robbed blind or otherwise taken advantage of. And the world’s central authorities still demonstrate less than full competence over the space. You cannot rely on your civic leaders to protect you while online. Often, you cannot even rely on them to make things right after a crime has occurred.
But in this space you are also free to write your own destiny. You have nearly unlimited power to defend yourself. A lot of people are not adept at this, but many within the rising generation have already mastered this realm, and can defend that which is their own, and do it to much greater effect than the central authorities could even dream. In fact, in cyberspace, a lot of independent operators wield as much power as any government. There are unregulated markets, forums, utilities, assets, and economies. There are even new currencies that hold just as much sway in this world as the dollar or any other government note. These are unregulated, and usually cannot be recovered if stolen. But they also cannot be seized by any entity claiming central power.
In this era, new stories are being written to reflect the current reality, or the near future of this reality, in such a way that is captivating consumers’ attention. That is the hallmark of the cyber punk genre.
The central idea, once again, is self-governance. The unaffiliated operator (often referred to as a “hacker”) plays by his own rules and is able to defend his own life and property without any interference from authority. And, in many cases, this hacker is fighting against the central authority. Yet instead of being presented as a villain or heretic, the hacker becomes a kind of folk hero, taking a stand against bullies, even the ones with fancy titles and offices. More and more people are coming to see themselves in this role.
So it would seem that something of the cowboy western remains. Perhaps it has not so much as died as shed its skin after a long period of dormancy. The resulting animal looks like a completely new being, but is simply a maturation of what came before. And though the cowboys have gone the way of all the Earth, their ideals can never completely perish.
Though we still have to wonder what happened to all the horses.
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…round these parts anymore.”]
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