Wednesday, March 9, 2011

How to write like Zane Grey (cont.)

Thanks to readers who offered thoughts on Zane Grey’s popularity after my last post. If Grey had been one of the first western writers writing for a western-starved public, I’d be ready to agree with Walker Martin. Being first would have given him a head start on all the competition.

But with the success of Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912, he was really coming from the back of the pack. There were 20-30 other western novelists by that time. Some of them had already published several novels with established publishing houses.

Melodrama. Elisabeth observed that Grey’s novels are heavy on the drama, if not melodrama. I’d definitely agree with this. Of all the early writers I’ve read from this period, the melodrama is the defining feature of his storytelling.

And his kind of melodrama seems particularly heavy-handed. To be fair, it is youthful and maybe idealistic, but in the way that young people can be way over-serious. He writes from what seems to me an adolescent view of the world – big emotions and big scenes, but no irony.
Humor. There are ways of heightening drama, like with understatement or humor, which to me are inseparable from a western frame of mind. The talk of characters in a novel by someone who understands the West is often laugh-out-loud funny, even when the situation is dire. 

That ironic perspective comes with the territory. In my admittedly limited reading of Grey, I have yet to see him highlight the drama with humor. Instead, he amps up the angst.

Owen Wister, who arguably did the most to get the genre going, understood this. The Virginian (1902) is full of humor – some of it farcical and clumsy. Yet the playfulness of the Virginian is an essential part of his character. And it intensifies the dramatic scenes, such as the hanging of the horse thieves or the gun duel with Trampas.

Zane Grey in Australia, 1939

Grey’s first novels were rejected by an otherwise friendly editor at Harper’s, who told him he’d never be a novelist. I’m guessing he was reacting to Grey’s overwrought and artless style of storytelling.

It’s worth remembering that Grey got his start as a published writer with articles about hunting and fishing for sporting magazines. This became the first audience for his fiction. Riders of the Purple Sage (1912), the bestseller that launched his career, was serialized in Field and Stream.

Patti Abbott reports that her grandfather-in-law, like a lot of grandfathers I’m willing to bet, liked how “nothing fancy” gets in the way of Grey’s stories. His is, for sure, an unadorned style. And when he happens to pause for something fancy, like a description of the scenery, it’s easy to skip ahead to where the action picks up again.

Zane Grey, 1895
Sport and a pastime. Richard Wheeler reports that Grey’s grandniece considered Grey to be the best male writer of women characters in western fiction. And it’s true that in The Drift Fence the central character is an independent young woman. (You immediately start drawing comparisons to Mattie Ross in True Grit.)

Outside of B. M. Bower (who was female), it's rare to find an early western writer who used a female as a point of view character. It would be interesting if this was the ingredient that made his narratives so popular, but I’d be surprised if the evidence supports the theory.

One can wonder if his portrayal of women had anything to do with his relationship to them in his personal life, which Richard Wheeler alludes to in his comment. Though married with children, the stay-at-home family man was not Grey’s style either. 

He had more than a few amorous adventures, one of them resulting in a paternity suit while he was still a student at Penn on a baseball scholarship. In later life, he made little secret of keeping mistresses.

Romance has a role to play in most early western novels, following in the footsteps of the Virginian and Molly as they do. Andy Adams’ refusal to include the subject in his novels is the exception to the rule. A reading of several Grey novels might reveal a portrayal of it that had a special appeal for readers.

Maybe someone has done that already. When and if I give Grey another go, I’ll look into it. Until then, I’m not much closer than I have been to understanding what made Grey such a big deal.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Sam Brown, The Big Lonely


  1. I agree Zane Grey was not in the first early group of western writers, many which you have been discussing. But even if we say there were 20 or so others ahead of him, that is nothing compared to the deluge that eventually made the western story so popular. When we look at the enormous number of writers that came after Grey, then that makes him and the other 20 look like pioneers of western fiction.

    For instance, when Grey started writing there were no western pulps at all. Yes, there were such stories in the general fiction magazines like POPULAR MAGAZINE and THE SATURDAY EVENING POST, but no title devoted to the west, until WESTERN STORY appeared in 1919 and was such a rousing success that many other western titles started to appear.

    By the 1930's western fiction was the favorite reading matter of the country, with the exception of possibly love and romance fiction which young girls and women read.

    Taking this enormous increase in readership in account, then it makes Zane Grey look like one of the early authors to take advantage of the western interest, even though there were 20 writers ahead of him.

    If we take the above into consideration, then it looks to me, that many readers were ready to accept Zane Grey, even though his work is often turgid, verbose, and not as interesting as some of the other writers you have been discussing.

  2. Walker, I take your point. I often think of THE VIRGINIAN as really getting the ball rolling, quickly followed by "early adopters," but it may have taken a Grey to take the new genre to the next level of mainstream readership.

    If my understanding of trend analysis is correct, you do that by stripping away perceived novelty to merge a new thing with what's already familiar. In this case it would be at the loss of what was truly inventive and exciting about what had come before.

    Thanks for your comment. It's great to have an expert in the house.

  3. An interesting point occurs to me. Since I often think of fiction as coming from a mythological perspective, the overheightened drama doesn't typically bother me. I neither expect nor want my fiction to perfectly mirror real life. Grey is definitely not writing about a west that was, but an emotional west. And maybe that's part of his success.

  4. Charles, you have a point there. I'm probably too much of a literalist. I understand that people live by myths, but my imagination doesn't seem to work that way.

  5. I agree with Charles. I have been a lifelong Grey reader, have all his books, spent two years exploring the west, searching for zane grey's america and come to the conclusion that Grey like his son Dr. Loren Grey, had a profound psychological aspect to his writing. They are very mythological stories.

  6. The key to Zane Grey is not that he is a western writer, but that he wrote Romance Westerns... vastly different and I think he was the first to do so with any success. He also wove social issues into his writing and was one of the early conservationists... and the most published author of the 1st half of the 20th century, far ecclipsing those before him.

  7. The key to Zane Grey is not that he is a western writer, but that he wrote Romance Westerns... vastly different and I think he was the first to do so with any success. He also wove social issues into his writing and was one of the early conservationists... and the most published author of the 1st half of the 20th century, far ecclipsing those before him.