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A Worthy Role Model

louis l'amour booksEvery writer probably has a favorite author, and though I’ve admired many –– favorites like H. G. Wells, C. S. Forester, Bernard Cornwell, and David Weber –– if I were asked to select just one to be my role model, it would have to be America’s storyteller, the incomparable Louis L’Amour.

Some of you might know the name; he penned 89 novels, and his characters have been brought to the screen by the likes of John Wayne, Sean Connery, Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott. His books have been widely translated, and his readership remains truly global, with worldwide sales topping 300 million by the year 2000. Given such success, why isn’t L’Amour celebrated alongside the literary greats, or even among commercially successful authors like J. K. Rowling?

Because he wrote westerns. Obviously.

Look, we all know that cowboy stories are crude morality plays from the post-war era in the United States –– heroes in white hats battling villains in black hats, bare-knuckle fist fights and showdowns at high noon. Racist, sexist, and ignorant, these tales don’t offer the sophistication we crave today. Put simply, westerns are genre garbage –– no better than science fiction, fantasy, superhero comics, or video games. They peddle to the lowest common denominator, dazzling impressionable idiots with stories that are beyond reason.

Whoops, sorry, my sarcasm dial was up on 11. Though I think there are plenty of people who would agree with what I’ve just said.

There’s definitely something surreal about seeing Sean Connery play Shalako. Hollywood rarely did L’Amour justice, though made-for-TV adaptions by Tom Selleck and Sam Elliott would later get things right.

You see, Hollywood did to westerns exactly what it continues to do to genres like science fiction. The studios want to appeal to everyone, so they find ways to make stories bigger, simpler, more spectacular… and in the process, less sophisticated. Obviously there are exceptions –– I can name quite a few excellent films, and I’m sure you can too –– but an archetypical genre formula nevertheless develops… and over time, that formula can subsume the genre, and all the intricate stories that first made it popular.

Louis L’Amour didn’t write to Hollywood western formulas; indeed, he hated them. I didn’t realize this until my father finally convinced me to try reading just one of his novels, Milo Talon. At that point I discovered what hundreds of millions of other L’Amour readers already knew: his characters occupied a world rather more real than the one imagined by Hollywood.

The politics of America’s settlement of the west are complex, and nuanced. As I’ve said before, my multicultural background makes me terribly interested in such nuance… and L’Amour’s approach suits my tastes. His books do not celebrate manifest destiny or cultural imperialism; those are sweeping terms applied to grand ideas. The men and women in his stories –– whatever their race or creed –– are much more concerned with escaping the oppressions, politics and economics of the rapidly-industrializing, jingoistic, ‘modern’ world. The resulting struggle to survive is compelling, and so fundamental that politics quickly get left aside.

Think of it this way: we’ve lately learned that some 7,000 Canadians would be willing to go to Mars, knowing the trip would be one way. What if those people, and thousands of others from around the world, actually did go to the red planet, and began to set up a human civilization there? A century later, as their stories were being told, what form would they take?

There could be many valid approaches. How about a macro assessment of the Earth politics that drove people off-world? Or a commentary about the cultural genocide that took place as many individual national identities were subsumed into one, and aspects of Earth history were quietly sanitized to promote unity on the colony? Or personal accounts of the colonists struggling to feed themselves, find love, raise children, survive natural disasters, and overcome their differences without (or with) violence?

When it came to the west, Louis L’Amour went with the third option, allowing readers to jump straight into the world, and make decisions about the politics after they understood the challenges associated with mere survival. His characters began not as archetypes, but as breathing figures born of research and experience. Some have since become stereotyped, because later writers and filmmakers followed his lead, but when he sat down at his typewriter, he was working from his own knowledge of the era. And it shows.

L’Amour’s books are vivid, and his western world is immersive. His writing style is direct and economical, and he makes the reader do a share of the work –– to see the nuances without him saying: this character was complicated because he had demons from the old world. And he did all of this so successfully that hundreds of millions of his books found homes. For myself, I can’t imagine a better role model… and indeed, I already own him much.

I make no bones about it: Smith would not have appeared in His Majesty’s New World had I not started reading L’Amour, and thus opened my mind to the people of the west. How would we have coped without Alex’s father –– or for that matter, his compatriots the Shylocks? We certainly wouldn’t have Champions, and now Alex and Stephanie would both be waiting impatiently for a series to come along for them to lead.

If you enjoyed His Majesty’s New World (and hell, even if you didn’t), I suggest you pick up a L’Amour novel. Most of them are short enough to blaze through in an afternoon… for newcomers, I often suggest Kilrone –– for no good reason except that I accidentally bought it twice, so it’s been the easiest one for me to lend out to friends. Give America’s storyteller a chance to take you to a frontier where ordinary people struggled against an unaltered landscape, and interfaced with an ‘alien’ culture, so that they could build lives away from corruption and oppression. You might be surprised by how quickly you’re drawn in.

I’ll end with these old interviews with L’Amour. For some reason he reminds me of Gene Roddenberry: