What Happened to the Western Novel?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 24, 2018


Jess Nevins has some interesting data in his essay, “The Golden Age of Science Fiction” about the number of titles published yearly for each pulp genre. I’m not sure of his source, or how the numbers were compiled, but I’m going to copy his tables here for convenience. I’m assuming these numbers are the total titles publishing in a given year.

Pulp stats1

Pulp stats2

Pulp stats3

Notice, that of the six genres, western pulp titles were the most numerous every year between 1936-1949. The pulp magazine essentially died out by 1950, although a handful of science fictional and mystery titles continued as digest-size magazines. Some people claim television killed the pulps, others suggest various financial concerns and magazine distribution policies.

When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s westerns were extremely common on television, maybe even the most popular kind of show. The list on Wikipedia is quite long. Back then my mother read mysteries and my dad read westerns. I’ve read a few westerns over the years, but I’ve always been a science fiction reader. However, my favorite movie genre has always been westerns.

Now when I’m at bookstores, new or used, their section for westerns novels are usually one shelf. What happened? Did the allure of the frontier die, or just move into outer space? Everything comes to an end, but why such a dramatic fall-off? It makes me wonder about the current glut of science fiction stories and shows. Will the SF genre eventually shrink, loved only by a few old fans like the western today?

What will replace science fiction? Could anyone in the 1940s imagine the western becoming an unpopular story type? Science fiction has shattered into various subgenres, with the dystopian tale becoming most fashionable with the young. Can you blame them? Their future isn’t our future.

If you study the chart above, science fiction titles were in 5th place most years, just above spicy titles (code word for sex). There were even spicy western pulps. Pulps mainly appealed to boys, with covers to prove it for many titles.

In the 1950s there was a boom in science fiction magazines, brought about I assume by the atomic bombs, jets, rockets, satellites, computers, etc. In the 1950s we looked both backward to the 19th-century and forward to the 21st. Maybe few people read westerns today because the future won and the 19th-century is now too far away.

So much has changed in my lifetime. Not just technology. The changes are also psychological in a way that’s hard to describe. I remember being part of the youth culture in the 1960s, but now feel completely alienated from the young in my sixties.

It’s hard to imagine a time when westerns were the most popular kind of pulp story to read. Maybe space exploration killed the western. As a boy in the 1950s, I wanted to wear a six-gun, but after Alan Sheppard’s 15-minute suborbital flight in 1961, I wanted to wear a spacesuit.


14 thoughts on “What Happened to the Western Novel?”

  1. I’ve read several theories about the decline of the Western. It was an overwhelmingly male reader genre and when men switched their attention to television and the Internet, the genre more or less collapsed. The same holds for “spicy” novels which pretty much disappeared when video and Internet porn showed up. I still read Westerns–I’m in a Western apa–but it feels like we’re headed the way of the dinosaurs.

  2. What, no “men’s action” pulps? Or does that come under “spicy”?

    I keep meaning to try some Zane Grey. Seems like I recall reading that at one time he was America’s most popular author. I’d like to recommend one of my own favorites, Clair Huffaker’s 1973 The Cowboy and the Cossack (illustrated), an adventure yarn about a cattle drive across Siberia in 1880.

  3. Just read BLACK GATE and found out about the death of Gardner Dozois. I own most of his YEAR’S BEST SF tomes. Gardner Dozois was a great editor. The SF World is dimmer now that he’s gone.

  4. According to BLACK GATE, Gardner Dozois has two more anthologies in the publishing pipeline: his annual YEAR’S BEST SF tome and THE BOOK OF MAGIC. Gardner Dozois was a giant in the SF community. I may do a tribute to him on my blog later this week.

    1. I assume, and hope, that his regular best of the year anthology will still come out this July. Julys in the future won’t be the same with Gardner’s anthology. But I’m also going to miss his short fiction reviews in Locus.

  5. Gardner Dozois seemed to have his finger on the pulse of contemporary Science Fiction. Like you, I enjoyed Dozois’ LOCUS reviews over the years. His death leaves a big Void in the genre.

    1. Maybe his publishers will create a commemorative collection of his short story reviews. Last year I found a book of Judith Merril’s book reviews. It was an interesting way to get to know her.

  6. The American frontier myth is no longer either the old west or outer space. It is now set in a dystopian future, usually fighting off walking dead or some other form of plague. Urban noir seems have been absorbed/morphed into either Urban Noir Fantasy or Cyberpunk-tech AI Noir.

    1. That’s probably true. A bunch of us old guys who grew up with westerns, and then watched as science fiction became the new frontier, agreed that the modern world is more urban and thus they have a different view of the future.

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