What Is Western Writing?
Jaffe, Marc (Ed.) (2007). Best Stories of the American West: Volume I. New York: Tom Doherty Associates.
These twenty stories are set in the western U.S. and usually involve horses, cows, or Indians. The writers include some big names, such as Sherman Alexie and Elmore Leonard, some well-known traditional western writers, such as Max Evans and Elmer Kelton, and plenty of unknowns.
I was skeptical, but now I think there is something characteristic about stories of the west, and it’s not just the scenery and the cowboys. In fact, the stories that emphasized the stereotypical 1880’s mythology were weakest, in my opinion. The lenses and filters of Hollywood make it hard to get past John Wayne and the Marlboro Man. Instead, what’s relatively unique about western stories is the depiction of strong-willed characters making their way in a rough-edged society and hostile nature. That’s a postulated “western character.” Mrs. Dalloway has no place in this world.
Another virtue of the collection is to highlight authors who live and work in the western U.S. The writing and publishing world does seem to have an eastern clique, with writers in the west much less well-known, for no literary reason, so this is a corrective.
My favorite story from the collection is “Snow Cave” by Peter Fromm, about a man and his son on a winter hunting trip somewhere cold, northern Montana, perhaps. They are snow-blinded, lost, and dig an ice cave to survive the night. The father keeps up a banter of light-hearted optimism for the child, but the reader can tell the situation is extremely dire. That separation of tone and mood makes the story great, besides being well-written with highly sensory descriptions reminiscent of Jack London.
I wish I could say all the stories were that good, but most were stereotypical or pointless or sentimental slices of life. Only a few presented memorable characters, innovative writing, or insightful observations. That’s a problem with story collections in general, not just “western” ones. It’s extremely difficult to write a short story that has strong characters and strong narrative voice and a clear premise, and maybe that’s why the art form is in decline.