"As Wild felled one of the redskins by a blow from the butt of his revolver, and sprang for the one with the tomahawk, the chief's daughter suddenly appeared. Raising her hands, she exclaimed, 'Go back, Young Wild West. I will save her!'" (1908)
Western fiction is a genre of literature set in the American Old West frontier and typically set from the late eighteenth to the late nineteenth century. Well-known writers of Western fiction include Zane Grey from the early 1900s and Louis L'Amour from the mid 20th century. The genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the popularity of televised Westerns such as Bonanza. Readership began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s and has reached a new low in the 2000s. Most bookstores, outside of a few west American states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books.
The Western as a specialized genre got its start in the "penny dreadfuls" and later the "dime novels". Published in June 1860, "Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter" is considered the first dime novel. These cheaply made books were hugely successful and capitalized on the many stories that were being told about the mountain men, outlaws, settlers and lawmen who were taming the western frontier. Many of these novels were fictionalized stories based on actual people: Buffalo Bill, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp (who was still alive at the time) and Billy the Kid.
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 genre peaked around the early 1960s, largely due to the tremendous number of Westerns on television. The burnout of the American public on television Westerns in the late 1960s seemed to have an effect on the literature as well, and interest in Western literature began to wane.
Western novels, films and pulps gave birth to Western comics, which were very popular, particularly from the late 1940s until circa 1967, when the comics began to turn to reprints. This can particularly be seen at Marvel Comics, where Westerns began circa 1948 and thrived until 1967, when one of their flagship titles, Kid Colt Outlaw (1949–1979), ceased to have new stories and entered the reprint phase. Other notable long-running Marvel Western comics included Rawhide Kid (1955–1957, 1960–1979) Two-Gun Kid (1948–1962), and Marvel Wild Western (1948–1957).
The popular Western comic stripRed Ryder was syndicated in hundreds of American newspapers from 1938–1964.
1970s and 1980s
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. George G. Gilman also maintained a cult following for several years in the 1970s and 1980s. Larry McMurtry's and Cormac McCarthy's works remain notable. Specifically, McMurtry's Lonesome Dove and McCarthy's Blood Meridian (both published in 1985) are recognized as major masterpieces both within and beyond the genre. Elmer Kelton, mostly noted for his novels The Good Old Boys and The Time it Never Rained, was voted by the Western Writers of America as the "Best Western Writer of All Time". Early in the 1970s Indiana novelist Marilyn Durham wrote two popular Western novels, The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing and Dutch Uncle. Western readership as a whole began to drop off in the mid- to late 1970s.
1990s and 2000s
Readership of western fiction reached a new low in the first decade of the twenty-first century, and most bookstores, outside of a few western states, only carry a small number of Western fiction books. Nevertheless, several Western fiction series are published monthly, such as The Trailsman, Slocum, Longarm and The Gunsmith. The genre has seen the rumblings of a revival, and 2008 saw the publication of an all-Western short story magazine Great Western Fiction which was published by Dry River Publishing in Colorado. Nevertheless, the magazine was short-lived and folded after only two issues.
Western authors are represented by the Western Writers of America, who present the annual Spur Awards and Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement. The organization was founded in 1953 to promote the literature of the American West. While the founding members were mostly western fiction writers, the organization began getting a number of other members from other backgrounds such as historians, regional history buffs, and writers from other genres.