Where Seldom Is Heard | Newberry

Where Seldom Is Heard

I had one or two complaints about the column back there a bit where I tried to define the difference between books which go into our Travel category, and books which go on the shelves in Transportation. “Don’t you have any EASY categories you could talk about?” one person asked. “How about something simple, like Westerns?”.

Well, I guess we could do that. Everyone knows what a western is. It’s a book set in the Old West, basically somewhere between the Missouri River and the Pacific Ocean from about 1865 to 1914. Some people like cowboys on the plain, and some people like the U.S. Marshal going after Bad Barney’s Gang. The hero is often a loner (the Lone Ranger made that famous, and as it was starting to feel tired, Clint Eastwood brought it back bigtime.) Others, however, hold down a job on a ranch or in a small town. The basic appeal is a world which is utterly uncomplicated (to us: it was complex enough at the time.)

In any case, it’s all such a solidly defined genre that there can be no question of what goes on THAT table come July, can there?

Wal now, pard, I don’t like to raise a cloud of dust here, but I reckon there can be a question or two.

Take, for example, Billy the Kid, a young man who lived and died in the Old West and is about as likely to crop up during a discussion of the era as Jesse James. There are a LOT of books about Billy. The ones which are nonfiction (or mostly nonfiction or at least CLAIM to be nonfiction) go into Law and Crime. Jesse goes there as well, along with Butch Cassidy.

The same goes for books about people who were nominally on the other side of the question: Bat Masterson, say, or Wyatt Earp. Although they’ve been in plenty of movies and television shows and novels, they were honest to goodness peace officers (I mentioned the word “nominally”, didn’t I?) and biographies of them go into Law & Crime with, say, lives of J. Edgar Hoover.

The tendency to want to put nonfiction into what is supposed to be a fiction category is especially difficult around this place, since the Old West is one of the Newberry’s Things. (We call them core collections, but there’s no need for citified talk.) Books on ghost towns, cattle wars, bordellos, and doctors of the Old West sometimes come in by the boxload, though those of you who did not rush in to buy that history of dentistry in old Colorado are probably still smarting with the fact that there was only one copy for sale. If you went looking for it, or those other books in Westerns, you were bound to be disappointed. Westerns is a genre of Fiction, and only fiction goes there.

I hear some of you from here. “We get it, Uncle Blogsy. Fiction: right. But now that we know that, we know exactly what goes into westerns.”

That’s as may be. You may not have read any of it, but once upon a time there was a massive move in fiction toward tales of adventurers who went into lands unsettled by white pioneers, and found themselves up against the wilderness, the weather, and an assortment of Natives, friendly and un. Would you put THOSE in Westerns? Oh, yeah?

See, there were once plenty of novels written about people like that in Kentucky, Maine, or even old New York. These novels take place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but drop a few of the “prithees” and “gadzooks” and you might be reading a standard western. Do THESE go into westerns, even though they’re set in the wrong time or place?

It kind of depends, actually. The paperback publishers knew how to handle to cover art: put your characters in buckskins and people will buy the book without knowing it’s an Eastern, not a western. Then there’s the kind where the hero on the cover has a red uniform on, and there’s a lot of snow among the trees. These tales of Mountie heroism are technically known as Northerns. And we have plenty of novels that have come out over the last couple of decades set among the Native population, with not a white character in the whole book. Even if these take place in New Mexico in the nineteenth century, are THESE….

Okay, okay: I’ll ride off into the sunset now. But don’t talk to me about EASY categories again, or I’ll tell you all about paperback romances. (A lot of which have cowboys in them.)

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