Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Western fiction is a genre of literature that is typically set in any of the American states west of the Mississippi River and between the years of approximately 1860 and 1900. The Western got its start in the "penny dreadfuls" and later the "dime novels" that first began to be published in the mid-nineteenth century. These cheaply made books were published to capitalize on the many fanciful yet supposedly true stories that were being told about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers and lawmen who were taming the western frontier. By 1900, the new medium of pulp magazines also helped to relate these adventures to easterners. Meanwhile, non-American Authors like the German Karl May picked up the genre, went to full novel length, and made it hugely popular and successful in continental Europe from about 1880 on, though they were generally dismissed as trivial by the literary critics of the day.
The western as a distinct genre in American Literature itself began to emerge with the publication of The Virginian by Owen Wister in 1902. Popularity grew with the publication of Zane Grey's Riders of the Purple Sage in 1912. When pulp magazines exploded in popularity in the 1920s, western fiction greatly benefited (as did the author Max Brand, who excelled at the western short story). The simultaneous popularity of Western movies in the 1920s also helped the genre. In the 1940s several seminal westerns were published including The Ox-Bow Incident (1940) by Walter van Tilburg Clark, The Big Sky (1947) and The Way West (1949) by A.B. Guthrie, Jr. , and Shane (1949) by Jack Schaefer . Many other western authors gained readership in the 1950s, such as Luke Short , Ray Hogan , and Louis L'Amour. The genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the tremendous number of westerns on television (though television did help hasten the demise of western short fiction pulp magazines in the early 1950s). The burnout of the American public on television westerns in the late 1960s seemed to have an affect on the literature as well, and interest in western literature began to wane. In the 1970s, the work of Louis L'Amour began to catch hold of most western readers and he has tended to dominate the western reader lists ever since. Readership as a whole began to drop off in the mid- to late '70s and has reached a new low today, so much so that most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books in comparison to other genres. Western authors have an organization that represents them called the Western Writers of America , who present the annual Golden Spur Awards.
- The Western Writers of America website: http://www.westernwriters.org/
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