The Western Lit Blues
I’m-a-gettin’ tired of living up to my fictional counterpart
I don't like to gut fish. I grant you that a trout's fluorescent-colored guts are interesting to poke with a stick, but only for a short time, and only once in a great while. Mostly they are just slimy and smelly and get your hands all germy, which, if you are camping, say, in the Colorado mountains, is an annoying problem, because stomach ailments at 8,000 feet are never fun.
There, I said it. I'll even repeat it: I do not like to gut fish. Usually I have better things to do.
You may now dismiss me from the Cool Western Women's Club.
I'm a writer who writes about the West and the people out here. You know, the tough outdoorsy folks who populate Western books. People who hunt, camp, ride horses, and love to gut fish. Men and women who live on ranches or fall in love with ranchers. Or the folks who have a kayak on their Subaru and suntan marks on their feet from Chaco sandals, and the people who fall in love with suntanned, Subaru-driving kayakers.
I write about them because, in part, I'm that sort of person myself. I'm a ranch kid who now owns a Subaru and has crisscrossed suntan patterns on my feet all summer long. I write what I know and what I see. But I have to say: Even though I am similar to my fictional counterparts, I am also not them. There's more going on with life out here in the West than is often rendered in books. We Westerners are more complex and worldly and unique than what I sometimes find on the page, frankly. And as a writer, a reader, an observer, and a half-assed cultural critic, I'm starting to get a little worried.
Co-creation. That's what I've been thinking about lately. How books create our self-identity, and our identity gets captured in books, and back and forth it goes like some frenzied feeding machine. I read, I reflect, I transfer. So do you. Books and life feed each other, and then they create a monster of an ideology that we feel obligated to live up to.
Writers try to write about compelling stuff, partly so that readers will buy our books. We describe air and space and rafting and mountains and ranches in the West because they are part of what makes the West so interesting. And everyone who lives in the West is influenced by terrain, weather and nature. And the people who really know these places and spaces are fascinating.
We also write about place and space because that's what we think New York wants to see. Publishers and agents expect certain patterns to hold. While they wish to be “surprised” by “fresh” voices, they also want stereotypes to be affirmed -- they want that stoic cowboy, the windswept ranch, a happy ending to the love story. But it's not only New York -- I think Westerners also want the patterns to hold. They give us a sense of who we are. We like to be identified as the outdoorsy type, tumbleweeds and all.
But here's my worry: We writers write about real people -- we get our inspiration from somewhere, after all. At the same time, we also single out interesting characters in order to write singularly interesting stories. Then real people, who read these books, often feel required to live up to the unique characters we've invented. And then, unsurprisingly, we real people -- both readers and writers -- don't feel quite worthy. Must we all live like Pam Houston's characters and be raft guides and hunters? Must we always "cowboy up" and get back in the saddle again? Must the "Old West" characters wear boots and hats and the “New West” characters look just as predictable in their round glasses and ponytails? The very idea exhausts me.
Maybe I'm being naive, but I believe that books can have a lot of power. They show us how to live, or how we could live. They make us less lonely, they connect us to the world, and they illustrate different ways of being human. Art is what makes us more real. Art helps us to perceive and possess our lives.
So we writers damn well better get it right. And there are times when we've fallen down on the job, constricted by cultural mores, paradigms, and trends in publishing and readership, especially out here in the West. Sometimes our characters are valid, but they're not complete.
In most of our past literary history, the West has been portrayed one way: Men were the focus; they were quiet and stoic, and their lives and dreams were all smashed up and required the love of a woman to restore them. But then our literature evolved. We quit talking about corrals and gunsmoke and instead found other compelling stories -- we started hearing the voices of minorities and women, for instance, as well as the interior lives of more complex men.
But I wonder if we've just backed ourselves up into another corral, so to speak. Perhaps the myth has not gone away, it's just changed. Have our books romanticized us yet again? Are we all to be tough and strong outdoorsy types, fishing, camping and kayaking?
There are plenty of people in the West who have never fixed a fence and never slept under the stars. And what about those who live in apartment buildings and mansions, rather than cabins? What about a single Chicana mother on the streets of Denver, or a lonely transplant from L.A. in a new subdivision? Besides the ranchers and campers who live all around me, there are also painters and military personnel and homeless teens; there are people suffering from anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders. There are meth addicts, illegal immigrants, rich people who live up on the hill.
Our literary canon will be complete when more of their stories -- and the vast underlying psychology of their lives -- are included in it. The oil drillers of Alexandra Fuller's nonfiction, the odd lovers in Rick Bass' novels, the Spanish-infused language and Chicano influence in Aaron Abeyta's poetry. These artists help us see the real West with renewed clarity and honesty. They help us see ourselves.
So maybe I'm just tired of being as tough as Western fiction tells me I should be. And maybe I'm tired of having publishers want my characters to be that way. All I'm wishing for, I guess, is the full spectrum -- even as we admit to the ways in which the West defines us. When I pick up a book set out here, I want to read about world politics, poverty, wealth, unromanticized sex, sexual orientation, class issues, climate change. But more than anything, I want to read about how irritating it is to believe we're all supposed to be happy about gutting fish. Fish are slippery, and they stink.
There, I said it again.
This essay is adapted from one appearing in the upcoming book The Manner of the Country: Living and Writing the American West, edited by Russell Rowland and Page Stegner.