Thursday, August 15, 2013

WORDSLINGERS: An Epitaph for the Western by Will Murray

Will Murray's new book from Altus Press is not technically a history of the Western pulp magazine. Though Wordslingers contains enough info for someone to assemble a traditional history, it's much more than that. Actually, it might be a whole new breed of book. I’m not sure there’s ever been anything like it before.

Will spent years searching the pages of Writer’s Digest and similar magazines for letters and articles that tell the story—as it was happening—in the words of the writers and editors who made the pulp westerns happen, then put it all into historical context.

The result is a narrative taking us from the birth of the Western pulp in 1906 to the field's last gasp in 1960. In between are snippets from hundreds of articles, chronicling the growth and development of the genre and the numerous rises and falls of the market.

In his Introduction, Will describes it thusly: What follows is a species of oral history, employing found quotes, developed so that the author recedes into the role of omniscient organizer, sometimes disappearing altogether, in order to allow the participants of the past to spin the sage of their literary labors.

That sounds a bit too modest to me. Will has obviously devoted an incredible amount of time and effort to this book, and much of his own personality is evident on its pages.

What emerges in the course of the book’s 453 pages is the rarely-mentioned truth that the Western pulps were largely responsible for creating the mythic West we still hold dear. The early Western pulps, taking a cue from the dime novels, focused almost exclusively on gunfighters, sheriffs, outlaws and shootouts. While those were all genuine elements of the Old West, they were, in the great scheme of things, of miniscule importance. But those were the characters and events that captured the public’s imagination and sold magazines. Hollywood jumped on the same bandwagon, and side-by-side the pulps and the movies fed the American appetite for The West That Never Was.

The letters and articles are fascinating, providing insight into the minds of many well-known writers, some of whom survived the fall of the field to find success in paperback and hardcover, and some who flared briefly and were never heard from again.

The Western pulps, like other magazines, were hit hard by circumstances beyond their control—particularly wartime paper shortages and the Depression—but the insiders seemed oblivious to such forces. At every decline in sales, they were quick to blame the quality of the stories, and fought wars of words over whether the editors or the writers were most to blame.

Much of the blame was heaped upon the head of the one-dimensional “gun dummy” who ruled the roost during the first big boom of the Western pulp market. No one (except apparently the readers) liked the gun dummy and all agreed his time had passed. But no matter what new twists the writers and editors came up with, the gun dummy had been ingrained in the American psyche and he never stopped selling magazines.

Another argument that raged for years involved editors’ constant pleas for “something different.” All editors wanted it, but none knew quite what it was. Writers who took them seriously and submitted something truly different were rewarded with rejection slips, so the smart ones found ways to make only surface changes, like putting different clothes on the same old characters, or adding new angles to the same old plots.

Wordslingers has it all: The economic factors. The impact of world events. The changing face (and mind) of the reading public. The editors who helped widen the field, and those who strove to keep it narrow. The never-ending rivalry between writers who walked the real West versus those who'd never been west of New York.

The death of the Western pulps was foretold many times, but it always bounced back--always, that is, until paperbacks and television cornered the Western market in the 1950s. Though the magazines are gone, their legacy lives on in the American consciousness, and will never be fully separated from our less prosaic history. 

Wordslingers captures the joy and the sadness of the 50-year saga of these history making (and history remaking) magazines. It’s much more than a good read—it’s an experience. Experience it yourself!


Unknown said...

I got this a week or so ago, and I need to start reading it!

Richard Moore said...

I bought it at PulpFest and it is a wonderful piece of scholarship. Will Murray spent over a decade in research and it shows. It is not the usual cut and paste job from vintage writer mags. Highly recommended!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for your Blog.
It's always something more than interesting.
I have to say your graphics on your site are just some times Beautiful.
All The Best

Rick Robinson said...

It sounds fascinating! It's going on the must buy list.

Evan Lewis said...

Thanks for stopping by, gents. If anything, I understated how good this book is.

Cap'n Bob said...

I wanted this book but hoping for a lower price. You've convinced me it's worth every penny of the issue price. Order going in today.

George said...

I ordered WORDSLINGERS and can't wait to read it. Your review and Richard's comment motivate me to drop everything and start reading it.

Anonymous said...

I'm going through this in between watching early GUNSMOKE eps and reading old Wild West Weekly pulps.
This gives much info on writers and editors of the rough paper western yarns.

Great read, yuh kin almost smell the black gun powder on the pages.

Tascosa Kid