When St James Press published the second edition of Twentieth Century Western Writers in 1991, editor Geoff Sadler was invited to discuss the western genre on Burning Books, a highbrow TV show which was broadcast on a then-minority British television station called Channel 4. Mike Stotter's BHW Tombstone Showdown and my own book Law of the Gun were also included in the discussion, which aired on 10 November, 1991.
From the outset, however, the producers displayed a shameless but wholly predictable anti-western bias. They couldn't have been more disparaging if they'd tried. The opening voice-over dismissed the books under discussion as "pulp" westerns -- "the final frontier of popular fiction, where cardboard cowboys save the West from the savage Indian."
Though quite obviously hardbacks, Mike's book and mine were both described as paperbacks, and when Geoff Sadler finally appeared on screen, the caption which appeared beneath his image misspelled his surname.
Joining Geoff in the debate were architectural lecturer Joe Hagan and writer Julie Wheelwright, neither of whom was even remotely qualified to discuss the subject with any degree of authority. Indeed, they were both of the opinion that western fiction was all about a "masculinity thing", with Hagan further suggesting that the writers of such books were "just knocking them out for the money."
Geoff, of course, disagreed. "They write them because they like doing it," he countered in his wonderfully gentle Nottinghamshire accent. "They identify with the characters -- "
But that was as far as he got, because at that point, Wheelwright leapt in with: "But isn't there something problematic in identifying with these gunslingers?"
Now, this was and remains an argument which has always mystified me. I mean, I can see where it might be "problematic" to identify with the villain of the piece. But to identify with the hero, who usually represents honesty, integrity, determination, loyalty and courage, who treats the fairer sex with respect and admiration ... call me old-fashioned, but where's the "problem" with that?
Joe Hagan then singled out Law of the Gun for a few misguided observations. In the final shootout, my heroes, Sam Judge and Matt Dury (referred to by Hagan as "these two blokes") find themselves fighting for their lives against some pretty riled-up Apaches. Vastly out-numbered and in a kill-or-be-killed situation, all they can do is quite literally fight for their lives. And yet Hagan described them as "slaughtering" the Indians "indiscriminately." And so I was accused of racism.
When Wheelwright proposed that the western was "a dying genre ... on its last legs," Geoff again disagreed. "It's a minority genre," he corrected her. "But it will continue."
Knowing Geoff as well as I did, I had not the slightest shred of doubt that he argued his case articulately and coherently throughout the recording, and yet he was given only minimal airtime in the final programme -- and certainly nowhere near as much as Messrs Hagan and Wheelwright. And even though he observed that the western enjoyed "a hard core of popularity", the narrator of the show still wrote off our BHWs as "the last gasp of a dying genre."
I rang Geoff after the show ended. He was philosophical about its harsh treatment of the western, and I suppose that he -- we -- could hardly be anything else. But BHW writer B J Holmes was so angry that he complained about it in the pages of his local paper. In a letter headlined NOT READY FOR BOOT HILL YET, he wrote, "Anybody interested in the western (either as a reader or a writer) will be painfully familiar with outsiders who have an out-dated mental stereotype of what they think a western is, which they then proceed to criticise. [Burning Books] was no exception, allowing two outsiders to air their misinformed views."
Still, we have always toiled in a much-maligned, minority genre. To the uninitiated -- B J's infamous "outsiders" -- ours is a world of "Cowboys and Indians", "This town ain't big enough for both of us", "White man speak with fork tongue", "Meanwhile, back at the ranch" and other assorted cliches.
Or is it?
Because as I sit writing this I've just realised that it is now more than eighteen years since that programme was broadcast. And where is the western, that "dying genre" that was "on its last legs", now?
It's still standing, my friends.
All of which goes to show that, in its prejudiced examination of the western, Burning Books got everything wrong. And what it identified as "the last gasp" of the genre was actually the genre simply getting its second wind. Because we're still here. We're still writing. And we're still being read.
Geoff was right. The genre did continue. I wonder whatever became of its detractors?
This article first appeared in the pages of www.blackhorsewesterns.org