Monday, July 27, 2015


One of the realities of age is that my thinking has slowed down. Rather than rehash stuff I've posted here again and again, I will simply take breaks. When I have something worth saying, I'll say it. My views are here, and in previous blogs. People ask me whether the brain troubles of last summer have affected me, and the answer is yes


Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Struggling to Read a Book

On the rare occasions when I tackle what is called a literary novel, it usually goes something like this:

I admire the author's voice, the quality that makes him or her unique. In a good literary novel, that voice is present on every page. But after a few minutes of admiring the voice, my interest wanes.

So I read more, this time enjoying the complexity of the characters. In real life, characters are complicated and contradictory and hard to fathom, and the literary novelist, always seeking truth, is often able to capture these things. But after a while, my interest in them wanes.

So I read the literary novel to look for the truths about our social order buried in it. Truths and insights are what separate literary fiction from popular fiction, so I pay attention, wanting to understand the author's philosophy, approach to living, beliefs, and humor. But after a while this pales, and I turn to something else, usually the elegance of language employed by the author, the adroit phrase, the simile, the metaphor, the delicious play on words. But after a while, these pale on me.

In fact the darned literary novel is dead in the water because nothing much happens. What was missing all along was story. In literary fiction, story is a crime. We don't want to see page-turning tension or drama in a literary novel. We want insights and lofty understandings.

So I turn to popular fiction, where story is paramount, and we want tension, page-turning drama, and an eagerness to see what disaster will strike next. But the characters are so thin it is hard to believe they are real, and the drama is so pervasive that there is no meaning. Life is unexamined.  I grow bored. The story is there, in spades, but Scotch taped together, so I give up on popular fiction too, and turn to other things.

Mostly now I read nonfiction, biography and history. Those do capture my attention and admiration.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Who Reads Westerns?

I've devoted much of my life to pursuing a question: Who reads Westerns, and why? It's complicated and often bewildering, and I have no firm answers, even after decades of probing the question.

The first step is to divide Westerns into at least two categories (although there are actually many types of western stories). One category closely resembles mysteries. The hero, often a lawman, tracks down wrongdoing, brings the criminal to justice, and restores public safety and good order. This is the heart and soul of the detective story, and some westerns of this sort could be categorized as mysteries. The resolution and drama rise from the triumph of good over evil.

The other type of western is the last-man-standing story, in which the drama rises from gun battles that eventually leave one person on top, or one group triumphant. The drama rises from rivalry, skill with arms, ruthlessness, and courage. The rivals are often moral equivalents. In other words, the protagonists have no larger mission or greater ethical sense than the antagonists. And because these stories depend on shoot-out drama, they have a high body count.

I read reader reviews on Amazon to track both sorts of stories. I remember one reviewer, who liked gunfighter stories, complaining that one story lacked "action"-- gunfights-- because only two people and a horse died. "Action" is what these consumers put their cash on. 

There are other types of western stories, such as fur-trade and mining and settler novels, and these don't fall easily into the main categories.

Here's where I will get into trouble, but these are my impressions. The readers who like the gunfighter stories with high body counts and drama based on killing are conservative politically. They like stories that remain rigidly traditional, and abhor change or anything different. Good and evil don't matter much; what counts is who ends up the Top Dog. Some reviewers even complain in Amazon reviews that a story is too "liberal" for them. These readers are ethnocentric; the stories are all about the triumph of English-heritage white men.

Conversely, lawman-type westerns, in which a malefactor is brought to justice by a lawman, for the sake of the community, tend to be purchased and read by more liberal or progressive readers. They take death seriously, consider the suffering of victims seriously, and generally have more empathy toward victims, and more admiration for protagonists who right wrongs, often at great personal sacrifice. In this they are very like readers of detective novels.

So, yes, there are liberal or progressive or cosmopolitan readers of one sort of Western story, and conservative, racially narrow, readers of the last-man-standing gunfighter Westerns.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Hall of Fame

I received a package today from Western Writers of America. Within it was a handsome plaque bearing witness to my induction into the group's Hall of Fame. The McCracken Library, at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, will house the Hall of Fame and maintain an exhibit.

This year the group expanded the definition of the honor beyond contributions to the literature of the American West. Honorees may have contributed to film, music, poetry, fiction and nonfiction. Included was a booklet prepared for the induction, and I found myself, by an alphabetical happenstance, to be on the same page as John Wayne. I did not ever imagine in a long lifetime that I would be on any page with John Wayne. John Ford and Clint Eastwood were also honored for their contributions to western films.

All those who had won lifetime achievement awards from the organization were included this year in the Hall of Fame. Among them were Edward Abbey, Max Evans, Dee Brown, Tony Hillerman, John Jakes, Elmore Leonard, Dale Walker, and many other worthies, all of whom have made contributions far more substantial than my own.

I've been floating along all day.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Who Buys What and When

I've spent bewildering time trying to find out whether electronic publishing is growing or declining, and what categories are moving in what direction. It used to be relatively easy to find sales data when ISBN numbers were controlled by Bowker, and category data were regularly published by the Association of American Publishers.

No longer. Electronic books no longer require an ISBN. There are endless data collections, some proprietary, which can't be accessed by researchers. Books that once were only available in a format, such as Kindle or Nook, now are available in universal electronic formats, and can show up on most any electronic phone or Apple gizmo. You want something to read? See what your Samsung offers.

The result is guesswork. But it appears that electronic publishing has slacked off, and its growth is minimal, while electronic adult fiction has declined but children's electronic fiction has increased. But who knows for sure? One thing seems certain: electronic publishing is no longer making massive inroads into print publishing. Amazon is fading and traditional publishing is gaining.

What does seem likely is that traditional print publishers are doing better, and are negotiating change successfully. For one thing, their brands help buyers decide whether a book has merit. A book bearing the imprimatur of Knopf, or Scribner, or Norton, or Viking, or Macmillan, or Simon and Schuster, or Farrar, Straus, is likely to gain the confidence of a prospective buyer better than any self-published e-book lost in the Kindle swamps. For some reason, this makes supporters of self-publishing testy, if not hostile, because it reasserts that selectivity by publishers is a valuable market tool and helpful to book consumers.

Until there are ways to weed out bad e-books, and provide authoritative reviews in the electronic field, there will be chaos in publishing. But these things do sort themselves out. Badly burned readers will turn to, and make use of, the selective processes that were once a standard part of print publishing.

Friday, July 10, 2015

The Winds of War

I watch the efforts of the Chinese to build artificial islands on China Sea coral reefs with dread and fascination. Each of these is becoming an airstrip and military base, and will give China a strategic grip on the whole Pacific rim of Southeast Asia, and include within it such entities as the Philippines and Indonesia and Malasia.

We have seen this sort of ambition once before in our lifetimes. Japan's warlords and government created the Greater South East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in about 1940, the economic rationale for an imperial domination of the Asian Pacific. The result ended in nuclear war in 1945. The war, which opened with Pearl Harbor, was directly tied to Japan's imperial ambitions; an unwillingness to live serenely within its culture and boundaries. The Japanese version was expressly racist, and declared the racial superiority of the Japanese as the rationale for dominating Asia.

Now the Chinese, who were victims of the Japanese, are engaged in the identical enterprise, minus the overt racism. Both have been justified as an Asian effort to drive out Western imperialism. But the Chinese have less rationale for that; the U.S. promptly freed the Philippines after the war, no longer does much of anything about Formosa, achieved detente with China, and makes no imperial moves in the whole area. It is an odd thing, the way imperial ambition inspires overreach, which leads to grave warfare. In this case, it is leading toward nuclear war, in which all nations will be harmed, especially densely populated China. I deeply admire the Chinese, one of the world's great cultures, and hope that it curtails its imperial ambitions on its own, before bringing doom down upon this world.

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Sonntag Novels are Published

Crossroad Press has completed its publication of my Joe Sonntag mysteries, giving them all a retro look, suitable for the Truman-era stories. This one begins at church potluck supper, drifts to a sinister reform school outside of Milwaukee, and ends in a dental laboratory. Lieutenant Joe Sonntag of the Milwaukee police, and his best detective, Joe Silva,  have to figure out why supposedly good people do bad things to one another.