What Happened to the Western Novel?

by James Wallace Harris, Thursday, May 24, 2018

thrilling_western_1951-11

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.

JWH