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Genre disruption

The West is about exteriors… Every time you walk outside you’re reminded of where you live. That landscape is always there. – Craig Johnson

So I went to Western Reboot, and I had a  lovely time, and I have OPINIONS, oh yes I do.

First let’s get some expectations out of the way: this wasn’t MileHiCon; it wasn’t writers and aspiring writers and students of the genre in the room, it was fans and the general public, and that changes the tone of the thing, and I knew that going in and was prepared for that.

The panel discussion was interesting and well-moderated, and the Craig Johnson interview/talk was delightful. Mr. Johnson is a fabulous speaker and a very astute observer of Western culture and life. Because writers were not the audience, I was able to just relax and enjoy the talk instead of spending every moment trying to mine it. The panel talk was a little different; there’s always a tension in a panel group, a fruitful give-and-take of personal experience and collective wisdom, and I ended up taking quite a lot of notes and getting a lot out of it.

The premise behind Western Reboot is exploring the modern manifestations of genre Western, and particularly Western where it intersects with genre mystery. There are a lot of overlap – themes of moral conflict and the consequences of moral injury, a deep grounding in a very specific setting, insider/outsider dynamics, and vindication of the social order and the rule of law are dominant in both genres. So it’s not particularly surprising that a lot of writers influenced by classic genre Westerns, writing stories set in the contemporary American West, turn to mystery as framework for telling those stories.

Everything’s just easier with a dead body. – Barbara Nickless

This is my geek, you know? I love the West, I love stories about rural people and the conflict and tension between urban and rural issues in the West, I did my undergraduate capstone project on short-form Western narrative nonfiction. I love Western/mysteries. Love them.

My own books are classed and marketed as sci-fi, because (unless it’s a very specific category of literary fiction) if there are spaceships it’s genre SFF regardless of whatever else is happening, but there are enormous nods to Western genre conventions too. If Nhoresh Goban isn’t a straight-up unironic genre Western hero, I don’t know what he is. So I’m fascinated by this question of what postmodern Westerns and cross-genre Westerns look like and what defines them.

Over the course of the session, the panelists zeroed in on some fundamental, enduring themes that define contemporary Westerns:

The dynamic tension between the mythology of rugged individualism and self-sufficiency and homestead ethos on one hand, and the deep bonds of community and neighborliness on the other. This kept coming up over and over, and I was powerfully reminded of Gretel Ehrlich’s essay “On Water”:

Frank’s father was one of the Mormon colonists sent by Brigham Young to settle and put under cultivation the arid Big Horn Basin. The twenty thousand acres they claimed were barren and waterless. To remedy this problem they dug a canal thirty-seven miles long, twenty-seven feet across, and sixteen feet deep by hand. (…) “It was a socialistic sonofabitch from the beginning,” Frank recalls, “a beautiful damned thing. These ‘western individualists’ forget how things got done around here and not so damned many years ago at that.”

Geographic determinism, verisimilitude, and mythology. There’s a deep, deep tradition of depicting characters as being shaped and defined by, and inseparable from, the land and the historical forces upon the land. Some of that is profoundly tropey and mythic but every single writer also said that they believe that there is some real and meaningful truth in it that they are trying to convey.

Problematization of power in the hands of women. So many of these stories are led by female protagonists (Margaret Coel’s Vicky Holden, Barbara Nickless’ Sydney Parnell, JA Jance’s Joanna Brady, Kathleen Kent’s Betty Rhyzyk, Deborah Coates’ Hallie Michaels, so many) who challenge the status quo just by existing, while maintaining it in the roles they play, and that inherent conflict is fascinating and fertile ground for really fabulous character-driven storytelling.

A certain amount of competence porn. We do things the hard way, and we’re very good at what we do because we have to be. There’s some truth in this, but it’s also elevated to the level of a trope. (Craig Johnson: “Walt Longmire is a world-class detective… he just happens to live in the least-populated county in the least-populated state in the United States.”)

The constraints of technology as a manifestation of man v. nature conflict. (“Why doesn’t Walt carry a cell phone?” “You ever been to Wyoming?!?”)

And then the most interesting theme: the reality of writing in a genre profoundly shaped by colonial history in a post-colonial landscape, which is and understood and expressed in very different ways by these six authors.

You can’t look at cross-genre Western/mystery without noticing that it’s a hell of a lot of white people writing Native American experience – Johnson Doss Thurlo Coel Hillerman Bowen, it’s like an entire genre by itself. And inevitably, the question did come up: “What do the people you’re writing about think of what you write?” Margaret Coel seemed unprepared for it, and flustered; Craig Johnson seemed much more comfortable with both the question and his answer, and put it in the context of real one-on-one conversations with specific individuals and what’s very obviously a deep and detailed knowledge of the cultural landscape. “You have to tell the truth about the place you’re writing,” he said, and I knew exactly what he was talking about, though I’m not sure a lot of people in the room did: real life is weirder and richer than anything we can make up drawing from our own experience alone, so use that. He talked about his Basque characters and about how the history of settlement has created concentrated little ethnic pockets all over the West (and the world) and those boundaries and the people who occupy them are so much more interesting than a cardboard-cutout cowboy.

The other question that came up was: “how are you using your platform, your visibility – your power – to support less well-known and aspiring authors?” The question came up twice, actually, the first time generally, and the second time explicitly in the context of indigenous authors and #ownvoices and what had to be – had to be, right? – a self-awareness of the place of privilege these authors were working from.

Four of the five panelists really struggled with that question, not understanding where it was coming from or how they should answer it. Manuel Ramos rattled off the names of four fantastic underrated Latino mystery writers (Max Martinez, Lucha Corpi, Rolando Hinojosa, Leonardo Padura) and then, for good measure, “Rudolfo Anaya – you’ve heard of him? You know he writes mysteries?” Everybody laughed, but it was a deeply uncomfortable moment.

I’m going to repeat that because it’s important: Manuel Ramos rattled off the names of five Latino mystery writers without missing a beat.

Four white authors – one legend with decades of work under her belt, and three authors who were themselves rising stars emerging within the past ten years – couldn’t think of a single name of an up-and-coming, underrated, unknown, indie, debut, or otherwise in-need-of-signal-boosting author working in the field of Western regional contemporary fiction, marginalized or otherwise. Seriously? Nobody in their crit groups? No other clients of their agents? Nobody they sat a panel with at a con or had a drink with? Nobody? Not one?

One of these things is not like the others.

As I was watching the other four flounder on the question, I could not get out of my head an episode of the podcast Revisionist History talking about how the United States lost a generation of black teachers after Brown vs. the Kansas Board of Education and has never recovered, and how this is a disaster because high-achieving black kids who have a black teacher are twice as likely to get into gifted and talented programs as those who have a white teacher, and it’s not malice or overt racism so much as it is the simple lack of the presence of someone in power who takes an interest, who gives a shit, because they maybe see an echo of themselves in that kid. That’s how institutionalized racism works. That’s what opportunity gap looks like.

Bless Manuel Ramos for giving a shit. As we all should.

And we go back to the idea of genre Western as embodying that culture of neighborliness and mutual support. Writing is practice, and the stories we write down and the stories we tell by what we do and the communities we build are connected, they cannot help but be.

Sitting there in the darkened auditorium, watching this, I made myself a promise: I will never go into an author talk without a note in my hip pocket of two or three names of people who have more need of a signal-boost than I do. Never. Because out here, we have our neighbors’ backs. And we’re reminded every time we walk outside.

Published in intersections writing


    • Beth Beth

      SO MUCH TO THINK ABOUT. I’ll be chewing on it for a while.

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