is a genre of literature set in the American Old West
between the years of 1860 and 1900. Well-known writers of Western fiction include Zane Grey
from the early 1900s and Louis L'Amour
from the mid 20th century. The genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the popularity of televised Westerns
such as Bonanza
. Readership began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and has reached a new low in the 2000s. Most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books.
The Western got its start in the "penny dreadfuls
" and later the "dime novels
" that first began to be published in the mid-nineteenth century. These cheaply made books were published to capitalize on the many fanciful yet supposedly true stories that were being told about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers and lawmen who were taming the western frontier.
By 1900, the new medium of pulp magazines also helped to relate these adventures to easterners. Meanwhile, non-American authors like the German Karl May picked up the genre, went to full novel length, and made it hugely popular and successful in continental Europe from about 1880 on, though they were generally dismissed as trivial by the literary critics of the day.
The western in American literature
began to emerge with the novels of James Fenimore Cooper
, particularly his Leatherstocking Tales
. But The Virginian
by Owen Wister
, published in 1902, is considered by many to be the pioneering "literary" western novel, containing the core element of a rugged individual who stick to his guns in the face of trouble, neglecting chances to simply walk away. This seeming bundle of clichés was fresh and hugely popular in 1902, and elements of this formula appear in most Western stories ever since.
Popularity grew with the publication of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. When pulp magazines exploded in popularity in the 1920s, western fiction greatly benefited (as did the author Max Brand, who excelled at the western short story). The simultaneous popularity of Western movies in the 1920s also helped the genre.
1940s and 1950s
In the 1940s several seminal westerns were published including The Ox-Bow Incident
(1940) by Walter van Tilburg Clark
, The Big Sky
(1947) and The Way West
(1949) by A.B. Guthrie, Jr.
, and Shane
(1949) by Jack Schaefer
. Many other western authors gained readership in the 1950s, such as Luke Short
, Ray Hogan
, and Louis L'Amour
The genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the tremendous number of westerns on television. The burnout of the American public on television westerns in the late 1960s seemed to have an effect on the literature as well, and interest in western literature began to wane.
1970s and 1980s
In the 1970s, the work of Louis L'Amour
began to catch hold of most western readers and he has tended to dominate the western reader lists ever since. George G. Gilman
also maintained a cult following for several years in the 1970s and 1980s. Larry McMurtry
's and Cormac McCarthy
's works remain notable. Specifically, McMurtry's Lonesome Dove
and McCarthy's Blood Meridian
(both published in 1985) are recognized as major masterpieces both within and beyond the genre. Elmer Kelton
, mostly noted for his novels The Good Old Boys
and The Time it Never Rained
, was voted by the Western Writers of America as the "Best Western Writer of All Time". Western readership as a whole began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s.
1990s and 2000s
Readership of western fiction reached a new low in the 2000s, and most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books. Nevertheless, several Western fiction series are published monthly, such as The Trailsman, Slocum,
The genre has seen the rumblings of a revival and 2008 saw the publication of an all western short story magazine [Great Western Fiction]
which is published by Dry River Publishing in Colorado. Unfortunately this magazine was short lived - the publication has already folded.
Western authors are represented by the Western Writers of America
, who present the annual Spur Awards
and Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. The organization was founded in 1953 to promote the literature of the American West. While the founding members were mostly western fiction writers, the organization began getting a number of other members from other backgrounds such as historians, regional history buffs, and writers from other genres.