Of books, heroes, love, and profit
Readers who haven't opened a western novel or a romance since high school might be startled, as I was recently, to learn how immensely popular these books are - selling millions upon millions of copies a year to readers of all ages, while other parts of the American publishing industry are in a serious slump.Skip to next paragraph
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The vast majority of westerns and romances are the literary equivalent of junk food, yet a few have style, imagination, and other evidences of skill, care , and something besides a profit motive on the part of their authors and editors. Another thing the better ones seem to have in common is a cast of can-do characters - heroes and heroines with purpose, spunk, decency, and an ability to triumph over the odds against them.
And I suppose it should come as no shock that such qualities appeal to readers, especially in a period when morose introspection, despair, or at best stoicism appear to reign supreme in fiction. Looking at the sales figures, one can't help wondering if ''serious'' fiction hasn't abrogated its responsibility by forsaking the territory of the heart for the shadows and canyons of the psyche. Why can't more of our best contemporary writers find a way to feed mind and spirit without crossing the thin boundary into schlock?
Recently I spoke with the editor behind Dell's answer to ''Days of Our Lives'' and to the man whom the book world would have to call the King of the Cowboys.
Louis L'Amour has written 85 western novels over the last 30 years, and they're allm still in print. His publisher estimates the number of copies worldwide (in Swedish, French, Japanese, Greek, even Serbo-Croatian) at 130 million. He has 34 additional stories under way, and shows no signs of flagging.
His readers send him several thousand letters each year, he told me recently - many of them as laudatory as the one that arrived during the '60s from a marine serving in Vietnam who wanted a copy of each of the author's books sent to his 12-year-old son in Texas. If he were killed in action, this soldier felt a good legacy would be the L'Amour books.
The characters in this amicable author's straightforward, vivid stories have grit, decency, moral fiber, and that can-do attitude I mentioned. L'Amour feels westerns have perennial appeal because, ''in the first place, they're good, exciting stories. In the second, they reveal a part of our history. We're people born to push out into the unknown, move in new directions, not to accept the settled pattern of things.''
L'Amour thinks of himself as a storyteller in the tradition of Homer, Chaucer , or the spinners of the Arabian Nights tales. ''Although few people do it . . . , I write my books to be read aloud.''
The Dakota-born author, whose great-grandfather was killed by Indians and whose grandfather fought against them, now divides his time between homes in Los Angeles and Colorado, and libraries around the United States and abroad, where he does his research. He considers himself fortunate to have ''come on the scene when a lot of the old-time westerners were still around. I've known five men who knew Billy the Kid personally and well. I've known, altogether, about 30 old-time outlaws or gunfighters.''