What Exactly is a Western Novel?

The original Western novel is a unique genre among fiction because it of its decidedly American West location, but it has links to other forms of literature.  Westerns are classic hero tales, usually with a lone rider moving about a harsh landscape which is as tough as he is, doling out “frontier justice.”  The hero is honest, law-abiding (when the law makes sense), and forthright.

The Western hero is very similar to a knight (Knights of the Round Table), a bounty hunter in space (Star Wars), a lawyer (To Kill a Mockingbird), or the highlander in a romantic tale.  Each has the same goal, to dole out justice and save the damsel in distress.

The difference is that the Western novel takes place in the American West, usually between 1869-1899.  This is the time of the true cowboy of the tall tales, legends and the Western.

According to Joyce G. Saricks in The Reader’s Advisory Guide to Genre Fiction, there are  core elements to the Western Genre:

Traditional Westerns

1.  The Exterior descriptions of the landscape and terrain frame the books, which take place in the western United States in the decades between the Civil War and 1900.  Since they may be set in unidentified places (simply the West), and in an unspecified past time, they often project a sense of timelessness.

2.  The traditional hero is often a loner who arrives to right wrongs and then moves on.  Heroes use strategy before guns to win arguments.

3.  Plots may e complex or straightforward.  Common themes include the redemptive power of the West, the difficulties surviving in a harsh landscape, revenge, and the lack of the law along with the necessity of creating just laws.

4.  Nostalgia for times past presents and elegiac tone that permeates many Westerns.

5.  Pacing may be breakneck in Westerns that feature action-packed stories or more measured in others.

6.  Dialogue is generally spare, colorful, and rich in jargon, but many Westerns also feature lyrical descriptions of the landscape.

(Saricks, 2009)

Westerns are not the same as Historical Novels of the Old West which have the following criteria:

1.  Set in a specific time frame

2.  Historically accurate

3.  Usually strong female characters, as women settled the West

In more recent years, the Western has begun to evolve and spread out to find a home in other genres, which may be considered sub-genres.  These sub-genres are briefly highlighted among the other pagesThe true classic Western, however, still holds appeal for many, and although many librarians consider it to be a dying genre, it is still important to maintain a selection of Westerns for interested readers.

Give a Western a try!


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