On Westerns, L’Amour and writing popular fiction

No two people like the same book (or at least not in precisely same way, for precisely the same reasons).

This is a serious design flaw in the human race, on a par, from the writer’s point of view, with putting the recreation park next to the sewage outfall, and sharing some of the facilities between them. However, we have to manage with the latter, so I suppose we will cope with the former.

Now, let’s state upfront that I am biased in favor of reading. Of as many people as possible reading. Of as many people as possible reading, and enjoying reading so they go and another book just soon as they’ve finished this one… preferably – for the sake of my bank balance – mine, but if reading mine would put them off reading, rather than making them read another book, any book. Whether it’s “Kinky Womb-raiders in day-glo Leather” or Mao’s Little Red Book or Mein Kampf or My Little Pony – if reading that pleases them enough to read another book… it’s a still a win.

If you want the opinions of people who believe that reading is not for the common people, or that if the hoi polloi must read they should damned well read what their betters know is good for them, run along to File 770, or ask SFWA, or Camestros.

Of course their attitude makes as much sense as an emu on acid – but I repeat myself. Let’s rather talk about pleasing as many readers as possible. After all, it doesn’t make any real kind of long term sense (neither financially nor in the terms of the future) to frantically try to accommodate and please a 0.01% minority… if that means excluding larger groups. If you HAVE to choose (and I don’t believe you do – there is space for all sorts of books) it’s not – or shouldn’t be – an absolute, but proportions ought to roughly represent the demographics of the possible readers. It’s rather like being in politics – if you have 40 million unemployed and 40 thousand people unhappy about which public bathroom they can use, you’d naturally focus a thousand times the time in addressing unemployment issues… okay, a poor example, perhaps. I mean what does it really matter if 1000 times as many people have no jobs? Or no books they’d like to read? If they stop reading it will make no difference. Anyway, they can’t stop. They will just read the improving works we commend…

Or they won’t. They can (and do) stop. Start thinking about a populace where most choose not read at all. It doesn’t matter where you sit on the socio-political spectrum as a writer or a reader. That’s a death-wish.

Which brings us back to title. In what must surely be regarded as the most successful time for getting as many people to read as possible – 1960 and early 70’s some authors (and some genres) managed to appeal to enormous numbers of readers. Mills and Boone Romances, Mickey Spillane, Lois L’Amour. This had a spillover effect – meaning that it wasn’t just the popular, but those at the time avant-garde authors – Mack Reynolds, Ursula Le Guin, Joanna Russ… could earn enough to live on and sold enough to be worthwhile publishers buying. Authors made a living selling short stories – that’s is a daydream now. Midlisters were earning good upper-middle-class incomes, writing a book a year. Now… many cannot write without a second job or a supporting partner. 7K a book considered ‘good’ by many.
I’m not advocating ‘turning the clock back’ – but what I am saying is if the vast bulk of readers can’t find that ‘popular appeal’, then the rest is on slow curve to death. Sir Terry Pratchett managed it. JK Rowling managed it. But they’re rarities. So let’s look at when this was common, and in specific look outside the genre, at the cowboy book. It’s a genre that is near dead – and yet there are still millions of young readers devouring Dad or Uncle Fred’s Louis L’Amour collection. It’s not the books that moved away from readers as much as the publishers moving away from the books… somewhere they lost connection.

Now L’Amour is interesting because he appealed to such a wide range of people – people across the world, who would never have seen America, and many of whom had never met a real live American. People across skin color, religion, and political affiliation. From staunch conservatives, to moderates, to outright socialists like my friend Eric Flint. Well, let’s be fair, Flint is a man who might have a MA in African History – but has worked in meat-packing plants, as a laborer. So he’s not your typical mouthy-on-the-internet never actually associated with those filthy workers type socialist. He actually knows work and ordinary workers first hand. I might disagree with him at times particularly about politics, but I like and respect the man… and we enjoy the same books.

So: what did L’Amour do right? Besides appeal to a lot of people: why? I over-analyze everything – I looked L’Amour and the cowboy genre in general when I was setting out to be a writer. Several stick out points, stylistically, are worth noticing. Sentences are generally short, shorter on action. There is a lot of action, non-action is often covered by narrator-style ‘telling’ rather than showing (the books read well aloud. You can almost imagine parts as a fireside yarn). The books themselves are short – often as little as 130 pages or less. They’re usually single point of view (trust me this is actually hard to do well). The successful authors had distinctive ‘voices’ – some of which I pinned on dialogue choice.

Secondly looking at characters themselves – there are a few not white not male characters – but they are decisive. That could just about be the core of the cowboy book, characters may wonder about things, but they don’t angst. While there are elements of a stereotype – courage, integrity, and independence – outside of familial relationships — are just about central. Even when bucking the law – these are good guys, with many of the core values that were looked up to in L’Amour’s youth (and in my opinion still should be – women were treated with respect, hard work, especially manual work valued. A recurring theme is not judging someone on appearances – and that intelligence and being well read (and self-taught) was not something you could judge by that.) Yes, by-in-large the female characters were supporting, and traditionally in feminine roles (not all, but generally – which probably accords with the facts and not fevered imaginations of radical feminist historical revisionists.

Description and setting– it’s not lengthy, but is fairly precise. One got the impression the author been there and seen that.

Finally the plots – the odds are ALWAYS stacked against the hero. The hero may well be a great or fast shot – but a surprising number of the books did not have that. But they did have grit, determination and while action was inevitably part of the solution, often the key stroke is to outmaneuver the foe. L’Amour used his own experience in boxing to write the fist-fights (which I admit are my least favorite part). It is always a can-do story. A story of frontiers, pushing limits of tough, good men. Of a deep pride in the country and people. Of the ability to make it. Of hope and triumph.

So: what else made them work – what else that is missing in modern sf/fantasy?
If you’ve forgotten what a good Western is like – you might try Peter Grant’s excellent Brings the Lightning.

The picture is a link.

86 thoughts on “On Westerns, L’Amour and writing popular fiction

  1. The feminist historical revisionists probably get their version of history from fiction.. or its just fiction and they make it up…

    Anyway, is you want to analyze what is done right we can compare two theoretically similar situations- we can look at Avengers ($1.5 billion worldwide) versus the recent FF foulup ($160 million worldwide). I could write an entire post on it but i’ll just drop it here as a thread starter.

  2. There are a lot of parallels between the rise of paperback genre fiction in the 1960s and 1970s and the rise of e-book genre fiction today.

    Advances in technology allowed for cheap books–paperbacks were impulse buys in racks on drug store counters. You had some time to kill, you could choose a good looking cover, plop down two bits, and away you went.

    Publishers were able to start up with very little capital–printing and warehousing was outsourced and all you needed was a post office box and an old Underwood typewriter for sending out rejection letters.

    And books were everywhere. Reading wasn’t just for the privileged intellectual class. Big, ham-fisted construction workers pulled out battered Ace Originals on their lunch breaks. Beach bums rested in the shade of their boards while turning pages to find out who offed the philandering tycoon. Shop girls tucked romances about lonely nurses or schoolteachers under the notions counter for when business got slow.

    Naturally, the literary establishment hated it. “Paperback Original” was the mark of Cain. Serious reviewers wouldn’t be caught dead with them. Writers were cautioned to use a pseudonym when publishing genre paperback fiction to avoid being blacklisted by “real” publishers.

    Are we going to see a similar resurgence of popular reading with e-books? Well, to some extent I think we already are, but I think that most of the boom is still ahead of us. After all, the advances in printing that allowed cheap paperbacks were pioneered during WWII. It always takes a while for ne technologies to really take off.

    1. Oh, most definitely there will be a boom in e-books, and likely one which will favor indy writers, since we have a tendency to price them rather lower than the establishment publishers.

      1. Which is exactly what happened–heck, is still happening with the paperback boom. When the “real” publishers finally accepted that paperbacks were here to stay they kept to their “release the hardcover first and make them wait for the paperback” strategy.

        That’s why I’m not expecting them to wise up on e-book pricing any time soon.

        1. Back when I was in junior high we had to do “book reports.” Not only was science fiction not acceptable, neither was anything from a paperback book… even if it was exactly the same text as a hardback.

          1. Never had that problem, and I did one report on Brave New World, and a paperback version of Day of the Jackal. The only one that raised eyebrows was M.A.S.H., in the 9th Grade and was specifically given the challenge to keep it G rated.

            Back then there was an in-between book made from paperbacks but with hardback covers with the original cover glued on. The price was in-between paperback and hardback, and held up better than pure paperbacks.

            1. Now that latter would have been a book report to see… Tempted to dig out the stack I have of the M.A.S.H. paperbacks.

          2. Yeah, me, too. I remember writing book reports for completely invented books. I made up an author and a title and wrote the kind of report that would convince the teacher that I was reading the “proper” books. I got good grades on them, too–so far as I know she never checked to see if any of the books really existed.

          3. I asked to do a report on the writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, his life, his books, etc., I was not allowed. I had to do a report on Truman Capote. I will not ever say that Truman Capote was not incredibly talented, but that fellow was also profoundly messed up.

        1. Also have little confusion about who the customer is? And that a bookstore with infinite shelf space is a very different place?

          1. *Their* customers are the book distributors, not the readers.

            The publishing industry is still trying to operate on the old multi-tier “retail” system, where each level gets a cut of the profit.

        2. They’ve had a command economy for many years. You don’t have to understand customers in that, or pay any attention to supply and demand.

    2. One thing to keep in mind is the change in inventory tax rules in the middle to late 70s. During the period of growth for the book industry, book backstock was subject not inventory tax. This translates to stores (and chains) buying and holding restock depth that allowed them to keep a slow starter author on the shelves while the reading public discovered her.
      The law changes. Now the bookstores have to pay tax on their inventory and the profit for a book disappears very quickly into the tax coffers of the local government. How to make a profit? buy big up front, push the hell out of your order and return the overage before the taxes kick in.
      At this point the two ways around the tax is e-book or print-on-demand, neither of which are as much of an impulse buy as see-and-hold books. I strongly suspect that repealing the inventory tax on books would see a re-emergence of more local bookstores and small publishers.

      1. I was a bookstore employee, and it’s heartbreaking to “strip” paperbacks (tear off the front cover for returns and trash the rest.)

      2. Honda inventories a huge variety replacement parts for its motorcycles going back to the early 1960s. But you have to wait for them to come out of Japan; same tax issue.

        If I was a publisher or warehouser wanting to keep a good inventory I’d see about putting my warehouse just over the border in Canada or Mexico. There might be overhead from paperwork or duty, but it’d only be once, or maybe twice, instead of annually.

        1. I’d be hesitant to set up a warehousing and distribution center just south of the Mexican border right now. As for north of the Canadian, there’s some possibility they might declare part of the inventory illegal and seize it.

      3. Ah ha! I was vaguely aware that there were tax incentives to the short shelf life of big box stores, but no one ever explained it as clearly as you just did.

    3. > 1960s and 1970s

      For “genre fiction?” Wind that back at least a century. Look up “penny dreadful” and “dime novel.”

      1. Yeah, checking the prices printed on my paperbacks of 60s and 70s, $1.95 seems to be median price. I tended to buy my books used, and a lot of those were a quarter.

        1. Whoa! Sure that is the print date on those, Misha? Or maybe it’s a genre thing… I still have many of my original RAH purchases from that era. Shorter ones (~150 pp.) were all $0.75. “I Will Fear No Evil” (500 pp.) $1.50. “Time Enough For Love” (600 pp., and some custom printing needed) was the only one as high as $1.95.

          Reminded me of a chronic peeve of mine, though. These paperbacks have been through multiple moves, storage, dorm rooms, transport by USPS and in checked luggage, lent out, frequent re-readings – and they are all in better shape than paperbacks I’ve bought since I’ve been “settled.” Well, except for those I’ve bought in maybe the last five years. Yet another place where modern quality is abysmal when compared to days gone by. (Old fart rant ends…)

          1. It depends, and I have a copy of The Foxfire Book from the 1970s as evidence. I had a copy of Food of the Gods that suffered the same problem. Baen Books went through a time with this issue, but I never encountered it. On the other end of the spectrum, I have more modern paperbacks with no binding problems at all.

            Now, I can gripe about the paper used in even hardbacks. I have some books over a century old where the paper is in better condition than some I bought in the 1970s. It’s the acidic paper issue, but I think that’s no longer a problem.

          2. The most common paper processing method involves sulfuric acid. Getting the acid *out* costs money too, so the cheapest grades of paper have enough left to start turning brown and brittle over time, usually aggravated by humidity. Newspapers were usually printed on the cheapest paper available, which is why they turned brown so fast.

            A few years ago I went through my shelves and discarded about a hundred books due to that. Pages that broke, covers that fell off, yes, I’d put of with that. But when I could break the book in half trying to open it, it was time to go.

            There are acid-free processes that make paper that doesn’t have this problem, but of course the paper costs more.

            Part of the problem with paperbacks was that they were considered disposable – read once, throw away. Because I’m a slow learner, I loaned books to a few individuals that simply thew them in the trash when done; they acted like I’d asked them to return a used Kleenex when I asked why they hadn’t brought the books back.

            1. Who the *hell* (pardon my french) throws away a perfectly good book!? Because it’s a *paperback*!? What!? *breathes deeply, exhales slowly* *hisses* “Those…barbarians…”
              Seriously, that is just…wrong.

    1. And yet, those *you* associate with , whose opinions you have elsewhere stated are to be valued, tell us what we should be reading on a daily basis.

        1. So in other words, no, we shouldn’t hold you to the same standard you hold us to.

    2. Camestros – this was written directly as a response your particularly obnoxious ‘walrus’ post, which I found about as funny and charming as I would someone mocking a burns victim about their face, or a rape victim about how attractive they are to that type. In that you sneered at cowboy books and L’Amour – which you’ve never read, and the kind of people who read them, and Peter Grant.

      Peter happens to be a man I respect. I’m going to embarrass the hell out of him by telling you why. I was going to say Peter has, single-handedly, done more for those less fortunate than himself, than all of the SJW of Flie 770 and, indeed, all the authors you celebrate put together… but as that is probably a negative number, with the active damage you lot have done to social cohesion, reading, and the equality of opportunity, I’ll put it this way. If a British black lesbian feminist looked at the university entrance stats in the UK – and saw (as is a fact) that the group who are least likely to get to university are poor white and male -and that rather than improving this, the figures are getting worse, and decided that that was wrong, and decided to champion it – a group likely to hate and despise and discriminate against her simply because of what she was, and where improving their lot would almost certainly worsen hers – she’d be approaching par. The difference was that she would have little danger of being killed. Add to that the man went on to work on a one-to-one basis doing one hardest and yet most necessary pieces of social redemption – being a prison Chaplin. And if you think that’s about religion you’re a lot dumber than I think you are. It’s dealing day-in, day-out with people who are often not likeable, who do not share your values, and still trying to help, and support. It’s mostly about psychology, and it is enormously hard on men who care deeply for other humans and try to understand them – and this man is one of those. Add to this he is disabled as a result of doing this. He’s working his butt off, more hours in a day than most of your crew do in a week, writing to make a living, because it’s that or claim a disability check. His books reflect those values. That is the caliber of a man to hold as a role model, to support…

      And here you go ‘supporting’ that with your sneer at him, at a better writer (L’Amour) than your entire ‘Alfie-list’, whose words built the society you can live in, and the people -from the poor and badly educated to those who are not either – who enjoyed reading that. 10/10 for good Puppy-kicker SJW minus several million as decent human being.

      Now are you going to double down like a good SJW, or apologize like a person of integrity? Let’s guess.

      1. People seldom realize that when you go into a prison to work you are unarmed and seldom have guards right at your side – and the prisoners aren’t in shackles, cuffs, or in their cells, either. Just sayin’ . . .

      2. Dave, what you have written, rather like your earlier comment above, is a reply to a pure fantasy in your head. In the piece you referred to I DID mock somebody but not Peter Grant – I mocked Brad Torgersen and I mocked people who think they know a genre despite having a weak understanding of its depth and range and I mocked myself as an example. So no, I’m not going to apologies for what you imagine your fictional character did. I will own the responsibility of what *I* do not what you would like to fantasize I do.

        1. Camestros, whether or not the walrus shtick might seem like simple, innocent, goofy fun (one could see how it mightn’t), why do you think that following up with “The Boycott-Tor-Books guy is writing it. Manly men with guns! Manly American men with guns!” would not be considered mocking the book and its author?

          1. Because it is then pointed out that who said actually knows nothing of the Western as a genre and is indulging in a stereotype based on a superficial understanding and it is pointed out that aside from knowing the name he actually knows nothing about Louis D’Amour or his qualities as a writer.
            Hmm, I’ve probably reached my comment limit now Brian 😉

            1. Well, the metafictional character (“you”) who takes a petty swipe at Peter Grant and follows it with the metafictional assertion that he knows zilch about Westerns isn’t being particularly consistent even within your metafiction, since the “piles of movies” “you” claim to have seen would include, say, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, True Grit, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, 3:10 to Yuma, or plenty of other films based on books which are sufficient evidence that the genre has more to offer than “manly men with guns.”

              Of course, I’ll defend your right mock people with walruses on horseback until the cows come home. But “I was actually making fun of myself” didn’t strike me as a terribly strong argument.

        2. Double down, and not very skillfully either. I’m not surprised, but disappointed in you (although I shouldn’t be. One of my weaknesses is assuming there is some good in everyone.) Don’t you guys get sick of proving Vox Day right?
          For the record Brad is hardly a better target. However your puppy kicker friends are chock full of statements of ‘I have never read that but I am going to vote no award’. Full of people who accept Irene Gallo’s vicious slander as truth without reading the books. Full of people who believe Glyer’s endless spin, without checking the primary sources. Margaret Attwood would be another perfect example as she has gifted disdain for sf as ‘squids in space’ and has frequently publicly displayed complete ignorance of what she sneers at. They’d be well suited to your ‘jest’ and certainly the covers of their books – those who have written anything – have many opportunities for you to walrus. Take Leckie’s cover and do that. She’s ‘privileged’, rich, well-connected in traditional publishing, and unlikely to be in the least affected. Go on, do it, show us you’re really attacking ignorance of the genre and not taking a poke at a poor working author because he accepted an offer to be published by someone you don’t like – who also pays the workers- the authors far better, and reliably and without Byzantine contracts.

          1. I appear to have reached my comment limit Dave. Happy to reply to your points there if you like. Up to you. Let me know 🙂 or people can just see for themselves what other works I have parodied.

  3. The thing that got me about Lamour was that, you not only got a feeling that he had “been there and done that” but he researched the smallest details. E.g, a friend of mine was from Boise Idaho. In one of the stories, the protagonist is in Boise Idaho, and talks to an Armenian Immigrant who is a clerk in a General Store. The clerk was my friend’s grandfather – all the details were correct – the name of the store, the name of the clerk, the description of the store.
    Another example. First Lamour book I picked up was in Union Station In Chicago, on a boy scout trip out west. There’s a scene in the book, where the protagonist is hiding under a rock near a stream, and see’s some petroglyphs. I realize that the description of the scene matched the place I am sitting – the quartz seam on the face of the bluff, the “S” curve in the stream, and the egg shaped rock in the stream. I scramble down to the rock, look underneath, and there are the petroglyphs, just as he described them.
    Even if you don’t know the subject, you can TELL when the author is using handwavium. Louis Lamour doesn’t, and I haven’t seen John Ringo using any either.
    All the little towns and streets John mentions in his Posleen stories? As near as I have discovered? They’re real.
    Other authors do this – but those are the two I think of that seem to have done the most research.

    1. The thing that got me about Lamour was that, you not only got a feeling that he had “been there and done that”

      L’Amour made a point that his westerns (at least) were set in places that he had been and the the scenery there was as described. Much the same could be said for Zane Grey. This may be true of other western writers; although, some popular ones were never west of the Mississippi. Experience on the ground does not guarantee a good story, but it helps.

      1. I seem to recall that he spent a great deal of time in his youth traveling and listening to the stories of men who had actually lived in the times he tended to write about. It shows.

        1. His book, Education of a Wandering Man, is a fixture on my shelf and an annual read. In it, he details his experiences as he traveled the world.

    2. I agree, the fact that you can actually go to the places L’Amour describes is a plus. When an author of westerns has his hero ride east from Las Cruces to get to Silver City without circumnavigating the globe it kind of drops me out of the story.

      1. *Giggle*
        As the Deity is my witness, I live by maps (and now and again, even google-maps), when plotting out that sort of thing. And collections of art and photographs contemporary to the time/place that I am writing about.

        1. Some years ago I read a blog post from a man who was upset with his father. His parents were supposed to meet him at a place some distance away; for some reason, they weren’t leaving at the same time. So his father went out to his car and got his map.

          The blogger kept telling his father there was no need for that; just tap here and here and there on the smartphone, stick it on the dash, and it would guide him to his destination. His father ignored him and made notes using his map.

          The blogger was angry over his father’s “inability to keep up with technology.” I pointed out that with the map, his father not only knew the course, he knew the surrounding countryside. All blogger-dude would know is “turn right in forty-three point six kilometers.” His father knew where he was going; all the blogger knew was “Simon Says.” But he just couldn’t see that.

          – TRX [has a file drawer full of maps]

          1. I always carry a map on a trip even with GPS because GPS will lie. More than once we’ve pulled over an consulted a map when the GPS got a case of the stupids. And I have given directions to people who’s GPS simply died.

            1. The only thing that I truly like about the “modern” way is looking up street view on Google (which occasionally has steered me wrong, although they are better these days about keeping those up to date). It is far easier to recognize a ten story building than a ten square inch road sign.

              (And yes, GPS, which I have used in rentals in unfamiliar cities – uh, I’m supposed to turn right here? Against the traffic on a ONE WAY STREET???)

      2. Snort. Oh, yes. One tiny little scene in “Revolt in 2100” nearly had me write RAH. To quiz him about when he happened to live in the Globe area… Although it was seriously dated by major highway changes when I read it, I had once been over the “old road” down to Phoenix. Brrr…

        (My very much small home town was also mentioned in “Sixth Column” – as a garrison point for the Asian invaders. That reference I had to get older to understand. It would be a very good place to put a garrison when your troops are air-mobile. Ground troops, not so much…)

        1. The open country in the West looks pretty much as it did back in the 19th C. The cities no so much. Indeed, downtown Dallas and Fort Worth hardly resemble what I remember from my youth; they bear no resemblance to how they must have looked in the Old West.

  4. L’Amour’s characters got around. _Shalako_ is one of my favorites because the protagonist reminds me a little of Captain Blood – he’s done and seen a great deal but keeps it quite until he’s needed. I still remember the scene where the MC is discussing military theorists with two of the travelers and they are batting around Clauswitz vs. Jonimi. But in the same book there’s a very grim description of what the Apache did to a settler who thought he could be kind and be left alone. But Shalako got his nickname because he’s friends with the Hopi and it always seemed to rain when he visited. You never quite know what’s going on with a L’Amour character or where he’s been (the first Sackett books aside, perhaps).

  5. Many many years ago, I remember that someone spoke disparagingly about a girl/young woman who read … shudder… Harlequins! I remember being rather baffled by the scathing tone — what did it mater what she was reading so long as she was reading? (yes, I’m still baffled)

    1. Well, to be “fair” there were/are like better fun reads (in Romance) than Harlequins, but yes if somebody enjoys reading because of Harlequins, that’s not a “Bad Thing”.

      1. Gateway drug… perhaps not that many of those who love to read that kind of stuff will move to more interesting fare. But some do, and they might not have discovered the joy of reading if there hadn’t been something the equivalent of a bag of candy available.

        1. Yep. I never cared about the “quality” of what my kids were reading. Content, yes, up to various ages, although I tended to be more “liberal” about that than some.

          1. You would be amazed at what Harlequin published. To give an example Pournelle’s (sp) “West of Honor” was one of them. Yes Laser was a Harlequin imprint as well as a full double column single spaced page of others.

      2. Most category romance are short enough and a quick enough read not to be intimidating to someone who reads somewhat slowly or who doesn’t have a lot of time in a busy, stressful day. That they aren’t challenging is a feature, not a bug.

        1. I can eat sushi – when it is liberally doused with wasabi. I can read romance – when it is liberally doused with science fiction (what else is “Restoree” by McCaffrey, or “A Civil Campaign” by Bujold?)

          That doesn’t mean that I disdain people who eat their sushi straight – or read their romance straight. They enjoy it. (Actually, I’m a minority opinion on both of those things. Which makes me wish I could prepare sushi, or write romance…)

          1. When I was younger, I mocked the (to my mind) the silly plot lines of the Harlequins Romances (especially since my sister loved them).

            Now I’m more YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary).

            I’ll admit that I have read less silly romantic plot lines. 😀

    2. Recently I’ve been on a Barbara Michaels/Elizabeth Peters kick (another sad loss to the writing world within the last few years), and have noticed–especially in her Barbara Michaels books–that many of her protagonists (who tend to be literature professors, etc) frequently feel guilty and/or hide their pleasure-reading because it’s “lowbrow.” Or get teased by another character for their lowbrow tastes in reading. Granted, this was a writer who–as Elizabeth Peters–made fun of the gothic genre (as well as other things), and likely here it was also a poke at the snobbery (because the characters feeling this were themselves in a ‘lowbrow thriller’)…but it was one thing that always faintly annoyed me. Why the hell should anyone feel guilty about reading Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes, dammit?

      Okay, I refer to a certain class of romance novels as ‘bodice rippers’…but it is fond mockery. (Most I avoid, but I am very fond of several authors.) Still, I would never dream of mocking anyone for reading what they enjoy. (Not even Fifty Shades or that ilk…I just agree with them that I don’t see the appeal, but they are welcome to it.)

      1. I’m a fan of Elizabeth Peters – l must admit I prefer some of the others to the Peabody/Emerson ones. Summer of the Dragon is a regular comfort read.

  6. I read a bunch of modern literature books in my early twenties as an attempt to understand why others liked them. And didn’t get an understanding. There may have been beautiful words but words that are not in service to the story seems useless to me (the best analogy I can think of are with those RnB singers that do scales and over sing every second word making the song about their vocal gymnastics and not about the song), but most of all I hated their characters with an all consuming passion.

    If they were women they would talk about how strong they were while being trod upon by everyone even though they are the most special person in the whole world if only the whole world would acknowledge that fact. If they were male, they were not men, and would never become men. In fact I got the distinct impression that most of the angst these characters displayed was of their worry that they might one day become men. As in decisive, loyal, certain of themselves, honorable (not that women can’t also be those things, just that those traits are what is traditionally associated with becoming a man). The male characters were naval gazers who derided those in authority while being clearly unsuited to ever become an authority themselves (if you don’t want someone to be in charge of you, you have to at the least be in charge of yourself).

    Also, there was no nuance while the books pretended to have nuance. That which the author agreed with was presented well but the opposite side was generally a straw man or cliché. Especially if the other side was working class or rural.

    Worst thing for me though was the fact nearly all of them, even the ones ostensibly starring grown males and females, were coming of age stories. As if that’s the most interesting story in the world. Something everybody generally does. Eventually even the most coddled of spoiled brats will have to pay a bill, change a diaper, be good at a job, and if they don’t? Then I have no respect and have no idea why I’d want to read about them. And as the protagonist? The one I’m supposed to sympathize with? Good lord, no.

    Dog bites man isn’t the story, man bites dog is; coming of age isn’t the story, not coming of age is. Because it’s different. But if you do it, what you’ll get is Peter Pan.

    You know, a story that’s lasted over a hundred years, sold a bunch of copies, and appealed to the masses for generations.

    But who wants that?

    1. What I notice, glancing at the backs and dust jackets of countless literary novels in my job at the library, is that an awful lot of literature seems to be about middle-aged academics who cheat on their wives. I get the feeling some of those may be autobiographical.

    2. During a class in philosophy, I once turned in an analysis of a paper Einstein wrote. My review just stated the content as I understood it. I got the paper back, with “That’s not what Einstein meant at all” in bold red letters at the top. Since Einstein had been dead for quite a few years before the grader was born (I remember Einstein’s death because I wanted to be a scientist at that time {14 or 15}), I seriously doubt that anybody could discern what Einstein meant. That’s when I decided I’d never be a philosopher because I couldn’t read the minds of dead people.

      And that’s my view of literary writing in general. I remember something Spider Robinson once wrote when someone, at a writers conference, asked him what he did for a living and was insistent that he had to do something in addition to writing.

    3. I remember reading a mystery/thriller series once where the oh-so-enlightened town folk, liberal Democrats, were traveling in the backcountry among the poor, downtrodden conservative Republican folk, and how the protagonists were looking down upon them, and how messed up their lives were. The irony, of course, being that the protagonists in question had about the most messed up lives you can think of, particularly in the emotional and psychological sense… and I don’t think the author had really noticed the particular contrast.

      I’m sure most of her readers didn’t notice either, because it was almost a reflexive observation—’well of course their lives are horrible; they live in places that aren’t civilized and they’re RELIGIOUS.’ But we’re talking about a series that is drenched in blood, the protagonists are ex-spouses who still cheat on their current partners with each other, and they are often in a state of mild depression. Ah, irony. I guess they aren’t teaching that any more.

  7. L’Amour books are, in a real sense, romances quite apart from the fact that they often have a romance *in* them. There’s not a lot of interior dialog and not a lot of emoting and you have to pay attention and feel *with* the characters instead of relying on having it explained to you in detail. I can’t think of any of his books that had a female protagonist other than Ride the River, but from Echo Sackett to Ma Talon to any number of stalwart women doing a man’s job (or the men who time after time opine about wanting a woman who’s their equal) to several darned decent, or horrible as the case may be, female villains… I always thought that L’Amour wrote women that I wanted to be. And what would you call a story about cowboys all love sick over a mysterious woman who ties notes to tumbleweeds?

    But also romance in the original sense of the word. Gun battles and fist fights and risky ventures to make one’s fortune, perseverance and honor and family. Winning against the odds and doing what needs done even if you’re sure you’ll fail.

    1. Mmmm. Isn’t this the difference between “romance” writing and “Romantic” writing?

  8. Which L’Amour book was this in?
    “I always thought that L’Amour wrote women that I wanted to be. And what would you call a story about cowboys all love sick over a mysterious woman who ties notes to tumbleweeds?”

    1. I don’t remember the name. There was an old gunfighter came to town to save it from the bad guys, but there was a woman whose husband had taken cows to market or something and been bucked off or otherwise killed and never came back and she’s got no way to know what happened to him. She’s stuck alone out on the prairie with children and ties little notes to tumbleweeds, which cowboys find and even if they know her, never think she could be writing these little romantic missives.

      1. The power of the internet: Conagher (1982). Notes from Amazon:

        “As far as the eye could see was a vast, empty horizon. Evie Teale had finally accepted that her husband wouldn’t be coming home. Now she and the children were alone in an untamed country where the elements, Indians, and thieves made it far easier to die than to live.

        Miles away, another solitary soul battled for survival. Conagher was a lean, dark-eyed drifter who wasn’t about to let a gang of rustlers push him around. While searching the isolated canyons for missing cattle, he found notes tied to tumbleweeds rolling with the wind. The bleak, spare words echoed Conagher’s own whispered prayers for companionship. Who was this mysterious woman on the other side of the wind? For Conagher, staying alive long enough to find her wasn’t going to be easy.”

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