Monday, August 26, 2013

Traditional western vs. Frontier Fiction

Putting together a survey of the first writers of novels set in the West, I have been puzzled by what to call what they wrote. The term “western” doesn’t quite do the job. In the mind of readers, that word has come to mean a story specifically about cowboys and/or lawmen and outlaws. But the early years of the genre (1880-1915) saw novels on many other subjects.

There were novels about prospecting and mining, the military, the logging industry, railroads, reclamation projects, homesteaders, politics, parsons, Indians and mixed bloods, Mormons, animals, the settlement of Old California, marriage and domestic relationships, and so on. To give them their own name, I’ve been calling them “early westerns.”

By doing that, I was hoping to help rehabilitate the term “western” itself, which bears the stigma for many readers of a worn-out and outdated genre of storytelling. I felt that by demonstrating the breadth of its origins, I might encourage both western readers and writers, some of whom who are already rediscovering its roots.

Traditional western. So I have quietly balked at the term “traditional western” because its usual focus on good men gunning for bad men is too narrow for what I was finding as I read. True, you can argue that a tradition got started with novels by Wister, Mulford, Seltzer, Raines, Coolidge, Grey, and a few others.

But those writers actually made up only a small percentage of turn-of-the-century western fiction. Seen in context, what people call the “traditional western” begins to look more like an off-shoot of a much broader variety of storytelling set in the West.

The male-dominated world of the “traditional western” also assumes that males have dominated the writing of western fiction from the beginning. That’s not in fact the case either. When Owen Wister began publishing his stories, the majority of western novelists had been women.

Their number included Mary Hallock Foote, Helen Hunt Jackson, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Emma Ghent Curtis, Patience Stapleton, Marah Ellis Ryan, and Gertrude Atherton. They had been writing western stories for almost 20 years before Wister published his cowboy western, Lin McLean, in 1897. It wasn’t until that novel that males of any number began writing in the genre.

Frontier fiction. A while ago, the term “frontier fiction” emerged as an apparent attempt by publishers to shake the western stigma for new fiction set in the West. John Nesbitt’s recent novel, Dark Prairie, is an example of the new breed, signaled in part by a shift away from the usual western cover art. The cover of Dark Prairie evokes a mood meant to draw in adult readers not looking for gunplay and lone horsemen in cowboy hats.

With this development, it has belatedly occurred to me as I write a book of my own on the subject that “early western” is not the right term for the novels I’m writing about. They are, and always were, “frontier fiction.” As stories about men and women in various walks of life, they have a particular character for being set on the barely civilized frontier. And, for a general rule, that’s about as specific as you can be about them.

So with something like relief, I’ve come to accept “frontier fiction” as a term that comes closer than “early western” to describe what I’m writing about. I figure it would also look good in a book title.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Coming up: Robert J. Conley, Zeke Proctor: Cherokee Outlaw


  1. I like the term frontier fiction. I remember reading and enjoying L'Amour's stories like "To the Far Blue Mountains," which certainly weren't the "traditional" western. Frontier is a good term for it.

  2. I like frontier fiction too. I'm glad you are wrestling with this. The whole field needs defining. Our friends over at Western Fictioneers say they are writers and advocates of the traditional western, but a review of their work strongly suggests that they mean gunfighter and shoot-em-up stories. Even their awards are named after a revolver. Western Writers of America simply enrolls writers of westerns, loosely defined, but it does include writers of stories about all aspects of the west, including mining, wagon trains, cattle drives, and so on. Note that their awards are called Spurs, and their Wister Award is actually a bronze buffalo. WWA welcomes those who write about the fur trade and mountain men, a genre that goes way back and includes a Pulitzer winner. WWA is probably more traditional than Western Fictioneers.

  3. Good post, and I think a good term for a book title.

  4. "Frontier fiction" works well enough, but you're right to puzzle over genres that no longer exist. For example, I came across "When Earth Gods Kill," a story by Steve Frazee that first appeared in ADVENTURE magazine in 1952 (reprinted in Leisure's 2004 NIGHTS OF TERROR). The story is about two men proving they can engineer a mine the old man can't. That's it. There's a hint of romance and some tension (echoing Clouzot's film THE WAGES OF FEAR) but mostly it's a "think piece" about engineering --something that I'll bet wouldn't find much of an audience today.

  5. I'm reminded of Louis L'Amour's old complaint: "If you write a book about a bygone period that lies east of the Mississippi River, then it's a historical novel. If it's west of the Mississippi, it's a western, a different category." That's something that must have happened between the era of the early writers you're studying and the era of L'Amour's popularity. Today I think you could give it a further twist: you can write a historical novel set west of the Mississippi, but if you put a cowboy or a lawman in it, that makes it a Western.

    I'm sure this has been said before, but for today's writers, it's frustrating that there are no sub-genres under Historical Fiction at most retailers. If there were, 'American West' or 'American Frontier' as a sub-genre would encompass all the different types of stories you're talking about nicely.

  6. I like the "Frontier Fiction" handle. Mine are often thought of as "western" and yet the history that I try hard to include within my fiction is often not recognized probably because of the time (late 19th) and location of Western Canada.
    "Partners" - wanderers who become miners.
    "The Great Liquor War" - pack trains, building railroads and NW Mounted Policemen.
    "Homesteader" - yes, cattle business, romance and gun-play.
    My collection of 17 short stories contains two about cattle and the title story (The Yearlings) is centred around a woman, mother and wife.
    Of the last three I've written, one could be called a "traditional western" but I wouldn't like it.
    Frontier fiction, on the other hand ... lets all make our own signs and make a new section down at the book store.

  7. Ron, a very timely post, especially since I usually read all kinds of western fiction though I have a preference for what you describe as "early western" which I find charming. But, I agree, "frontier fiction" sounds much better.

  8. Great post. I believe there is an untapped audience of readers for this genre and defining it as ‘Frontier Fiction’ helps readers discover new titles and potentially increases the market share for this type of book. It is very exciting. (And happens to be my personal favorite genre.) Keep writing!