The best of the West

What I've learned from Westerns about values

Over the past few months, I read an assortment of award-winning Western novels. Along the way, it has led to a discussion of faith and of violence (and ‘anti-violence’).

My operating theory is that Westerns make an excellent hunting ground for a vision of America. What is it that America should be? And how is it that America/ns should behave in order to achieve this goal? These two questions can be answered through ‘values’ - specifically terminal (the former) and instrumental (the latter).

In a Venn diagram combining ‘poor social research’ with ‘terrible literary analysis’, I’ve been plotting Westerns in terms of the Rokeach Value Survey.

This project made an excellent distraction in the run-up to the election. I, like many others, felt the 2020 election was of - without sounding silly - existential importance. In speculative fiction, writers posit the idea of the ‘Jonbar hinge’, a single decision which can lead to radically different historical paths. What we had in November was as obvious a hinge as, I suspect, we’ll see in our lifetimes. (That’s not to say that I’m looking forward to the inevitable flood of alternate history Trumpfic.)

Retreating into Westerns (and let’s be clear - it was a retreat: my own way of dealing with the anxiety of the situation) was a planner’s solution. Westerns, as I’ve argued, are about crucial decisions at key moments: ordinary, flawed individuals making tough choices. Their decisions not only impact them, but also the - surprisingly fragile - societies around them. Westerns therefore let me look at these moments, these potential hinges, from the same remove of fiction. In the abstracted, but not abstract. Westerns serve as a staging ground for potential visions of America. And by reviewing them ‘at scale’, it gives me a chance to see - and hopefully understand - a multiverse of Americas.

Did it work?

Well, I mean, no. Of course not.

This is a deeply silly experiment. Whatever the opposite of robust is, this is that. (Tsubor?) It is one person’s opinion of three dozen people’s opinion, with no proper methodology to speak of. So, please, liberally sprinkle with grains of salt. But the project was a lot of fun, distracted me at the right time, and introduced me to a lot of new authors.

And, the results - if in no way scientific - were still directional enough to allow for further musing.

A quick reminder: I read 35 books (I’ve excluded the two I didn’t finish). With each one, I assigned a ‘3’ to the key value, and a ‘1’ to other values that were important to the text. These numbers are arbitrary, as is everything else.

I’ve put everything in a neat spreadsheet here, so you can sort it or play as you see fit. I tried to read a decent spread across authors, years and award categories. I was largely led by the availability of the books - unsurprisingly, (oldish) American books in the Western genre don’t have a ton of availability in the UK, and this seems to be a genre that digitisation ignored. Unhelpfully, this spread makes it a little harder to analyse within ‘subsets’ (e.g. are there changes by decade?). If I were to do this properly, that’d be a fun follow-up. (The totals are slightly different in the spreadsheet - see below for the explanation.)

First, terminal. What should America ‘be’?

This selection of terminal values can feel somewhat unambitious. Certainly the pairing of, and high placement of, Self-Respect and Family Security, comes across as slightly insular. A bit America First. That’s certainly a highly individualistic pairing: a desired vision of America where, as individuals (or their own close group), are safe and dignified.

A World at Peace, the most dominant terminal value, has further-reaching significance: how one fits into the world. This is not to take the words literally (world does not mean ‘the world’), but across communities and societies. A vision of an American that’s harmonious (or simply conflict-free), and within that, allowing for an individual’s goals and preferences.

This is more clear, of course, within the instrumental values. How should Americans behave? Responsibility is incredibly dominant. Almost two-thirds of all books had Responsibility as a key value, and a quarter had Responsibility as the most important one. As you can see, Responsibility is the only value that averaged greater than one: making it as close to universal as could possibly be anticipated.

The tension between the ‘individual’ and ‘societal’ terminal values only emphasises Responsibility’s importance. Even if your ultimate goal is the safety and success of yourself or your group, Responsibility means understanding when or if to set that aside in to help the ‘world’. It isn’t so much sacrifice, per se, as the willingness to make a decision for factors that go above and beyond directly aiding one’s own interest.

And, this is, of course, what we see in Westerns over, and over, and over again.

Our protagonists are invariably given chances to take the easy way out - to make money, to save their farm, to sell out, to step aside, to commit to violence, to let bad things happen. But the conflict within a Western, and the value central to that conflict, comes from the character’s willingness to put themselves, or their own interests, at risk.

On the most basic level, this is what good is - to do something for others with no reward, or expectation thereof, for oneself. The ‘unrewarded’ care of others is a fundamental tenet of most major religions, but Westerns - fiction, more broadly - allows us to examine ‘goodness’ as a case study rather than a set of rules.

Westerns, I’ll add, are particularly glorious at this because of - as previously noted - the harshness of the setting. They taken place in an environment where the reader understands that every decision matters, and comes with major risks and repercussions. Westerns let us see morality play out, ‘in real time’, rather than as a purely philosophical question.

We can all read the tea leaves of the spreadsheet in our own way, but this is the result I’m galloping away with. Westerns show that we have our own interests, which may be - and probably are - both respected and respectable. Westerns also show that the highest value is responsibility: to understand when and how to prioritise those interests when they come into conflict with those of others, even if that involves risk, or cost, to ourselves.

While on the subject of goodness - let’s talk about the books themselves.

The challenge that comes with reading a lot of books in a row, especially if they’re all of the same genre or flavour, is that you start to forget ‘what good looks like’. I’ve written about this before, back when I was entrenched in mysteries. It is a real problem.

As you can imagine, as a reviewer, editor, slush-reader, agent, literary judge - an unwavering recognition of quality is important. ‘Objectivity’ is the wrong word here. (Can any creative endeavour be judged objectively? I don’t know. Argue amongst yourselves). It is about maintaining the broadest possible perspective. If you fall into the oubliette of adequacy, a crappy book that is merely better than its (even crappier) predecessor can feel like the best book in the world. You need occasional, meaningful reminders of actual quality, to make sure your scale doesn’t start sliding.

For the Westerns, I haven’t gone down into the rabbit hole of trying to quantify my opinion (as with the Mysteries challenge). Instead, I’ve just put in a ‘Did I like it?’ column, with a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ answer. This later expanded to include ‘No (DNF)’, for books that I couldn’t finish.

Of the 40ish books I read, I enjoyed a majority of them. But which were good? Many of these were mentioned in previous emails, so I won’t linger on this, but…

My top ten

In alphabetical order

  • Thomas Eidson’s St Agnes’ Stand (1994)

  • Lee Hoffman’s The Valdez Horses (1967)

  • Joe Lansdale’s Paradise Sky (2016)

  • Lee Leighton’s Law Man (1953)

  • Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove (1985) and Comanche Moon (1997)

  • John Prebble’s The Buffalo Soldiers (1959)

  • Herbert Purdum’s My Brother John (1966)

  • Sheldon Russell’s A Forgotten Evil (2019)

  • Glen Swarthout’s The Shootist (1975)

Of those, The Shootist and Lonesome Dove are unequivocally the best.

I also went a bit rogue, and re/read four Westerns that I already knew were ‘good’, or could reasonably expect to be:

  • Oakley Hall’s Warlock (1958)

  • Joe Lansdale’s Sunset and Sawdust (2003)

  • Jack Schaefer’s Shane (1940)

  • Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s The Ox-Bow Incident (1949)

Consider these the control for the experiment.

Although I didn’t factor them in the Values totals (above), they are still included in the spreadsheet (and, happily, they follow the same trend).

I’m not sure what it is that makes these six books good, or what it is that distinguishes them from their peers. Warlock is an epic, but also a shameless pastiche. Shane is pint-sized, but wears its heart on its sleeve. The Ox-Bow Incident and Lonesome Dove are both, arguably, tragedies - but the former is borderline traumatic while the latter is oddly heart-warming in its celebration of failure. Sunset and Sawdust is a genre-spanner: one of the many mystery/Western hybrids that I read, and easily the best of the lot. The Shootist, I’ve argued, has noir notes, but only in the way that it perfectly captures the anxiety of modernity.

There’s not a ‘golden thread’ connecting the six, but they shine nonetheless. Those are the best six books. I can point at them and say, hand on heart, that’s what ‘good looks like’. To me, at least, it is obvious and inarguable.

I mention this not because I’m keen to start an argument over subjectivity in criticism. Instead, I wanted a counterweight to my - rather ponderous - quantitative search for ‘goodness’ above, and its triple-distilled conclusion. Again, I’m a planner. I like diagrams and theorems; brutal simplicity of thought. But as reassuring as a spreadsheet is, the reduction of values - of goodness - to a column of numbers is as inherently ridiculous as the White Hats / Black Hats logic of the (TV) Western.

Imagine, for example, if every single American was asked to make the same binary decision. If everyone supposedly subscribed to a single shared value, shouldn’t they all choose in the same way?

Well, no. (51% / 47%, in the most recent case.)

In the case of our Western lessons, even if right value - the right behaviour - goodness - is about making the Responsible decision, there’s still too much that’s contextually unique surrounding every individual to ever make that decision formulaic, or even ‘formulatisable’. Values are a matter of priorities. Just like the recognition of quality, every individual will have their own scale of what’s most important to them, and why.

This is what keeps fiction a going proposition: unique contexts give us new stories to tell. But that same individuality means that values make a lousy predictive mechanism. Even if we all agreed what good is (which we don’t), we wouldn’t choose it in the same way.

All more philosophical (or ethical) than intended. The t̶w̶o̶ three key lessons:

  • Values, although useful in many ways, make for difficult predictive tools.

  • Always remember what good is, even if that’s just for you.

  • The Shootist is the best Western.

Other things:

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