Articles and Essays by Charlie Steel
IN DEFENSE OF TRADITIONAL WESTERN FICTION
1st Printing ROUNDUP MAGAZINE, April 2009
Official Publication of Western Writers of America
Perspective of the
Icons Had on
Literature About the
There are many articles in magazines, on blogs, and on the World Wide Web that criticize traditional
Westerns and their authors. This is unfair. Certainly John Steinbeck would not be categorized very
well in any specific genre. That great writer also happened to pen some unforgettable Western
His writing is filed mainly in libraries and bookstores as Fiction. Readers and writers don't really think of him in
any specific genre, other than to judge his work as it stands.
A good well-written story is exactly that---a good well-written story. It stands alone separate from any labeling.
That holds true for Westerns as well. It is unfortunate that we cannot categorize all contemporary, historical, and
traditional Westerns as simply Fiction.
First, it is wrong for anyone, especially writers, historians, professors, and bloggers to publicly make suppositions
that the Western is in an unhealthy state. Its health is fine and will remain fine; it just no longer dominates the
media like it once did.
Most disturbing are statements declaring traditional Westerns as passé. It is repeatedly emphasized that writers
and readers should concentrate on contemporary and historically accurate Westerns written by living authors.
Some discussions seem to declare embarrassment of traditional forms and state they are tiresome, cliché, and
should no longer be promoted. Specifically, some writers today lament the fact that Zane Grey, Max Brand, and
Louis L'Amour seem to continue to dominate bookshelves, book sales, and Western author name recognition.
It is difficult to comprehend why current writers complain about the continued success of these three famous
Western authors. Envy is not an appropriate response to their vast achievements. Wishful thinking is not going
to rescind their continued fame or past triumphs. Negative pronouncements are embarrassing and conceited.
They show contempt and a vast lack of respect for the success of these three writers and their inestimable
contributions to the status of the Western. There is a reason why these three writers continue to dominate sales
and it has to do with their historical timing, talent, and marketing skills, and very little to do with luck. New authors
may someday reach their stature but will never replace them. Such iconic acclaim comes only from an equal
status in sales and public recognition. And, for most living writers, that will be a long time coming.
Authors of traditional fiction have the right to be recognized without ridicule, and to write in any form they choose,
so long as it is tasteful and a good story. The negative statements about writers of traditional fiction will forever
be out there in cyberspace and print, continuing to do damage. This creates an unhealthy separatist
atmosphere and is wrong for modern writers or groups to advocate one form of Western writing over another. It
should be recognized that traditional Westerns represent the very foundation of the Western.
The nearly exclusive interest in Westerns continues from the early 1900s until the 1960s. A shift in the focus on
traditional Westerns is not limited to books. When the movies and television were in their infancy, the primary
event in American history that entertainment portrayed was the conquering of the lands beyond the Mississippi.
The writer who can be attributed to that focus is Zane Grey, the man who primarily made the Western popular.
The concentration on the Western theme, first in the movies and then on television, slowly changed. Publishing
houses also followed this trend. This turn of events is a fact, nothing calculated.
This may seem like a quandary or contradiction, but it is not. Less exposure does not mean people throughout
the world are not reading or viewing Westerns---or that they ever stopped reading or viewing them. This just
means Westerns are not the predominate entertainment they once were. This is far from alarming. With the
massive growth in population, and proper marketing, there will be millions of new readers who will turn to
Money seems to be part of this argument. The one thing that all Western writers, contemporary, historical, and
traditional, realize with great lamentation is that the days of the $5000 short story sale to magazines, or large
book advances from publishing houses, are over. Across the spectrum of the publishing industry, the majority of
writers whose work is accepted must submit a marketing plan and outline of how they, the authors, are going to
promote their books once published. Only a very few writers are going to make a large amount of money in book
sales and residuals. Everyone else has to work for those sales.
Consolidation and harsh procedures of large publishing houses can also create obstacles. Writers are turning to
small publishers and to self promotion. Some handle book sales very well; others don't. This is a reality of the
publishing world. In this respect, Zane Grey, Max Brand, and Louis L'Amour had an easier time in gaining income
from their literary efforts. The end of that old publishing era is something to regret. On the other hand, writers
who partner or work with creative presses, buy back or publish and market their own books, can earn up to 70%
return on the sale of each book. A phenomenal salary potential has arrived in this computer age. This is
something that all Western authors should consider taking advantage of instead of lamenting the past.
Publishing and marketing are presently more fluid. Authors may have a book with a publishing house and
another they are marketing on their own. In either case, once greater renown of a title is achieved, a writer or
small publisher may or may not allow contracts with bigger publishing houses, (or larger book distributors) and
their work may end up on bookshelves beside the great icons. But, for most authors, this may not be where they
would receive the most reward for their efforts. Creative marketing with author owned books, and direct book
sales at special presentations, for many authors seem to have far greater income potential.
Grey, Brand, and L'Amour certainly established a deep seated connection with their readers by writing stories
that captured the reader's heart. In the first half of the twentieth century their stories dominated the printed
market. Their stories sold around the world and many were turned into film. They remained famous and their
work still sells because their stories contain themes and ideals that continue to appeal to readers. Rather than
turn their backs on these authors, contemporary writers desiring to reach their readers need to study and
emulate what these famous writers have done.
Jon Tuska writes in a forward to Tales of the Golden West: Book Seven (Five Star, 2006):
The greatest lesson the pioneers learned from the Indians is with us still: that it is each man's and each woman's
inalienable right to find his own path in life, to follow his own vision, to achieve his own destiny---even should one
fail in the process. There is no principle so singularly revolutionary as this one in human intellectual history
before the American frontier experience, and it grew from the very soil of this land and the peoples who came to
live on it. It is this principle that has always been the very cornerstone of the Western story.
Tuska maintains this is the reason Grey, Brand, and L'Amour continue to be successful because their writing
contains all of these elements. These writers made vast contributions not only to the Western but to all fiction.
Everyone can learn from their prose and descriptive writing.
The reason all three authors remain in print is because they wrote exciting uplifting stories that will never die. It is
the financial force of the readers that directs the publishers to continue to print books written by the three noted
authors. The writers may have passed away, but their literature has not; they breathed life into their Western
stories that continue to sweep the world over.
Unlike Hollywood scenarios, success for most of us will not come overnight. For some, it may come after death.
For the rest of us, we will have to be content with a series of books or stories in print and be gratified that we are
published authors. We write our stories as well as we can and look for a place among our peers. Not
unexpectedly, some do better than others. One of the most acclaimed living Western authors, Elmer Kelton, has
documented that it took a lifetime to earn recognition.
It is recommended that Western writers persevere, be supportive to ALL styles of tasteful writing, and make a
positive contribution in whatever form. We should be more conciliatory to all Western authors: contemporary,
historical, or traditional. Let posterity and our readership determine what happens to our work.
Since the writing of this article, digital publishing has taken over the publishing industry making it
much easier for writers to publish their own work. Now a writer can choose between submitting to a
publisher or to self-publishing digitally. Amazon.com continues to dominate this field.
Charlie Steel is the author of Fight for Wet Springs, Desert Heat, Desert Cold and Other Tales of the West, as
well as many short stories.
Copyright © 2010 by CONDOR PUBLISHING, INC
MAX BRAND (Frederick
Faust) was born to write.
He was a genius. His
Western stories gallop
across the written page
at a furious and
pace. He wrote like a
madman, millions of
words, and is attributed
to have written 500 plus
books under 19
pseudonyms and in
many themes (genres)
other than the Western.
A letter recently received
from a publishing house
that prints his work
indicated that Max Brand
Westerns are being
discovered by young
readers and it is they
who are becoming the
new book buyers for his
LOUIS L’AMOUR wrote
some fantastic books.
Look at Reilly’s Luck,
one of his best. His
short stories are
wonderful and a few of
them would stand up to
any writer in the world.
For the skeptic, read
Trap of Gold. This author
is revered by loyal fans
who have passed his
books down through at
least three generations.
His unique ability to
make the reader feel
uplifted after reading one
of his stories, perhaps
accounts for his
that Louis L'Amour has
sold over 330 million
books. That would make
him not only the best
selling western author
of all time, but also
among the twenty top
selling authors, from
any genre, in the history
ZANE GREY, starting with Betty Zane (as a
self published novel) was slow to reach the
reading public. But Grey wrote very well and
readers responded to his later books about
lifetime---developed the Western for mass
audiences, provided stories and scripts for
the very first movies, and briefly owned his
own movie studio which eventually became
Paramount. In his time, he was incredibly
famous and he earned enormous amounts
of money---the first American writer to be so
well-known and so well paid. For many
years in the early 1900s, he explored and
researched the West on horseback. He
was the first one who scouted and filmed
Monument Valley, even if the credit goes to
John Ford who happened to make better
movies at that location.