Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Wednesday's Western: The Best Western Novels Not Nominated, continued....
Last week, I left off with 1969, the year of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Wild Bunch, which was something of a turning point for the western as it had previously been known in publishing circles. Conventional westerns of the 1950s, with the simplicity of their white hat/black hat duality, were going out of fashion even among the ardent followers of the genre. Novels once on the cutting edge became mainstream. Movies were based on novels which in turn affected the writing of new novels.
The Spur Awards, which had previously ignored more sophisticated westerns such as The Professionals and The Wild Bunch, grudgingly now began to reflect this change and so the literary quality of Spur winners was on the rise. The best traditional western authors were happy to change, helping to expand the definition of "western novel." Publishers of conventional westerns saw their sales fall.
In 1970, Clifton Adams won the Spur Award again for the second year in a row with The Last Days of Wolf Garnett, a conventional vengeance western. Not nominated was Elmore Leonard's excellent western, Valdez Is Coming, which was made into a very fine film the following year. Not nominated was Tony Hillerman's The Blessing Way, the first in a long series of good ones.
In 1971, the winning western novel was Elmer Kelton's The Day The Cowboys Quit, which I reviewed here (link) some time ago. This was Kelton's best novel and a break from the Kelton's previous novels and the general standard of Western Novel winners of the past. Based upon historical events and character-driven, it also dealt with ideas.
Not nominated was Dee Brown's non-fiction Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee, first published in January, it went through 13 reprintings by October, 1971, and was selected by bookclubs across the land, a sign of the social consciousness of the times.
In 1972, the Spur Award went to Lewis B. Patten for A Killing In Kiowa, a reactionary tribute to the old guard (or perhaps given as something of a lifetime achievement award). Patten was long a hacker of standard and sometimes pulpy westerns, turning out over 90 books under several names. At least this one was a passable adult western. To judge by the others I've seen, he wrote mostly YA novels or simple-minded variations of cliched revenge tales, "shit-kicking" action yarns with stock characters. The best thing that you can say about them is that they were loyal to the old conventions. Some of his tales, such as Gene Autry and the Ghost Riders (1957), will last long as artifacts.
Western movies led western books in innovations that year with Joe Kidd, Jeremiah Johnson, and Ulzana's Raid, among many others. The naturalism of Vardis Fisher's Mountain Man brought to film was refreshing, and there was an interesting true story behind Elmore Leonard's Joe Kidd.
In 1973, Elmer Kelton won again with The Time It Never Rained, another character-driven novel involving ranch economics and the independent western attitude vs. bureaucratic policies. Ideas and realized characters were becoming more important than happy endings--or so it seemed. Among those not nominated was Clair Huffaker's epic, The Cowboy and the Cossack, which I reviewed here (link) a while back. Also not nominated that year was Tony Hillerman's cross-genre western/mystery, Dance Hall of the Dead, but his day would come.
(to be continued....)