So, out in our West, artists are trying to run their eyes clear of mythic and legendary cobwebs, and see straight to the actual.
--William Kittredge, “Doors to Our House” (from “Owning It All”).
Literary agent Nat Sobel, fresh off a jet from Manhattan, was scouting for talent in the Utah countryside. Like others in publishing, he had heard about a popular writers’ conference in Park City called Writers at Work.
As his rental car sped past the Great Salt Lake, the city boy spied a McDonald’s restaurant. Pickup trucks and Jeeps crammed the parking lot. Rifle barrels jutted from front seats. What am I doing here? thought Sobel, shedding his sport coat.
The veteran agent soon found out. At dinner that night with a Boston publisher, the two happened to chat about a writer whose work they had spotted in small magazines. Sobel hoped to sign up the woman, and the publisher wanted to add the writer’s fiction to a short-story anthology.
The next morning, a young woman walked up to Sobel and introduced herself.
“I blurted, ‘Oh my God, you’re the writer we’ve all been talking about!’ ” says Sobel, laughing. “In the middle of the desert, this young lady found out she had a fan club.”
Sobel declined to name the writer or to suggest that the encounter launched a new literary star. He tells the anecdote to illustrate a quiet but forceful movement in the U.S. publishing industry: A growing number of writers and body of serious literature are springing from university towns and cultural outposts in the American West.
Call it the sagebrush school of literature, a phrase coined by Russell Martin, the editor of “Writers of the Purple Sage,” a Viking Penguin fiction anthology.
A bevy of the finest authors in American letters write about or live in the West, a literary region of the mind that covers the central plains, the Southwest, California and the Pacific Northwest.
A partial list--on it are several National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winners--includes John Nichols, Richard Ford, Thomas McGuane, James Welch, Rick Bass, Gretel Ehrlich, Louise Erdrich, Barry Lopez, Leslie Marmon Silko, Rudolfo Anaya, Michael Dorris, Elizabeth Tallent, Ivan Doig, James Houston, Wendell Berry, N. Scott Momady and Tom Robbins.
The West has spawned such a rich literature in recent years that some predict it may rival the writing tradition of the South of William Faulkner and Eudora Welty.
“That strong narrative voice seems to be coming from the West now,” agrees Carol Houck Smith, a vice president at W. W. Norton. “The whole country is more expansive and exuberant, and Western writers are reflecting that energy.”
“There are a remarkable number of extremely gifted writers out there, and they’re crossing regional boundaries,” says Gary Fisketjon, editor of the Atlantic Monthly Press and an outdoorsman who hunts and fishes with Montana authors.
At the same time, a strong publishing base in the West is emerging. Spirited university and small presses, helped by cheaper printing technology, are thriving. The presses are erasing the “regional” stigma from obscure writers and helping them find national audiences. “There’s growth and success among publishers out West, and there’s room for a lot more,” said Norm Bolotin, president of Laing Communications, a business consultant to the book industry, in Seattle.
The pulp Western novels remain a huge market. But publishers are also looking for a literature that reflects the modern West coming of age, or a truthful history of the old frontier.
“It’s about time people recognized the enormous amount of literary talent working here,” says 80-year-old novelist Wallace Stegner, the dean of contemporary Western writers. “I’ve been waiting a half-century for this to happen.”
Essayist and fiction writer William Kittredge calls the new writers “anti-mythological.” They transcend the images of the West created earlier in the century by popular writers such as Zane Grey, author of “Riders of the Purple Sage,” and immortalized by Hollywood in “High Noon” and scores of movies.
“The West has been imprisoned by formulaic pulp novels for years,” says Jon Tuska, editor of “The American West in Fiction” and the producer of a 10-part PBS series on the West. “But now, more writers and publishers are presenting stories true to the people and the time.”
Awed by the West and the spirit of its people, writers such as Stegner, A. B. Guthrie Jr., Clyde Rice, Dee Brown, David Lavender, Wright Morris and Frank Waters have written lyrical accounts of family chronicles, great migrations and Indian traditions.
Waters, a former engineer and spokesman for the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico during the Cold War, angered some fans of Western legend 30 years ago when he tarnished the myth of Wyatt Earp, the heroic frontier marshal, in his books “The Colorado” and “The Earp Brothers of Tombstone.”
Waters revealed the dashing lawman was in truth a con man, a gambler and a coward. Earp’s desertion of his wife led to her suicide. To cap it all, Waters learned that the shoot-out at the O.K. Corral, in which Earp supposedly fought off the bad guys, was a turf war between Earp’s outlaw gang and another criminal band.
In a similar vein, argue Waters and some others, the golden myth of the West is an epic of cruel conquest: the cavalry wiping out Indians, industry and technology raping the land.
“The whole westward expansion myth is seen as romantic, but it’s a joke, a blot on American history,” says Waters, 87, of Tucson, who has written 22 novels and histories on the Southwest and Mexico.
Addressing myth on a gentler level, naturalist Ann Zwinger notes in the recent anthology “Old Southwest, New Southwest,” the legendary purple sage of Zane Grey’s classic is actually a purple figwort.
Stegner, another truth seeker, is spoken of reverently by young Western authors.
His sweeping novels are set in the frontier and modern West. In contrast to the cardboard heroes and damsels of dime-store romances, Stegner’s characters include strong women and complex men. In the 1970s, Stegner won a Pulitzer Prize for “Angle of Repose” and a National Book Award for “The Spectator Bird.”
Despite his success, many failed to notice the coming groundswell of Western writers--several of them former students of Stegner’s at the Stanford University Creative Writing Program. “It took a while to catch on,” says the white-haired, bespectacled Stegner, who lives in the Los Altos Hills near Stanford.
Western authors gained additional credibility when nature writers began giving a literary voice to environmentalism in the 1960s and ‘70s.
Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang” captured the radical spirit of environmental politics. Other writers and naturalists like Lopez (“Of Wolves and Men”) and Annie Dillard (“A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”) helped persuade publishers to start looking past the island of Manhattan for fine literature.
“Writers get their power and vision from that land,” says Dan O’Brien, a biologist and rancher in South Dakota who recently sold the movie rights for his first novel, “Spirit of the Hills,” to filmmaker Steven Spielberg. “It’s almost a religious connection.”
James Thomas, a writer and editor of “Best of the West,” a fiction anthology published by Peregrine Smith in Salt Lake City, calls the lure of the land the “Georgia O’Keeffe syndrome.”
Some writers theorize their creativity is fed by the beauty of the deserts and canyons. Or the magical influence of the native cultures. Even the sun and the clarity of light. “It’s in the chili peppers,” jokes Rudolfo Anaya, a novelist and professor at the University of New Mexico.
“The space and quiet and solitude make us happy and if we’re happy, we write well,” says Rick Bass, a 32-year-old author who lives on a cattle ranch near wind-swept Yaak, Wyo.
The soft-spoken Bass, who once mowed lawns in Eudora Welty’s neighborhood in Jackson, Miss., in a ploy to meet the great writer, was trained as a geologist before he was “discovered” at Park City a few years ago. His first book, “The Watch,” was a collection of short stories. Most recently, he has published a book of essays called “Oil Notes.”
Having struggled with the desolate landscape as a grand theme, contemporary Western writers are moving on to tales of love and family, a common humanity in an age of computer chips and corporate buy-outs.
“We do have a sense of community here, a throwback to village life . . .” says author Gretel Ehrlich, a former Los Angeles filmmaker whose ranch in the Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming is flanked by grazing land and shrub alpine. Ehrlich’s work includes essays, “The Solace of Open Spaces,” and the novel “Heart Mountain.”
“We’re isolated in these little towns and battered by the violent weather,” she says. “Because of that, we know each other so well. The landscape and society and our private lives are all connected.”
Author Kittredge is another hard-core country boy.
A burly, friendly man, Kittredge grew up in the high deserts of Oregon and Nevada. Hours from cities, the writer ordered “serious” books from San Francisco. He read Camus and subscribed to the Hudson Review.
In his late 30s, Kittredge abandoned his cattle ranch to study at the University of Iowa’s famed writing program. Shortly after that, he started teaching at the University of Montana.
Kittredge and other writers and poets--Richard Hugo, Norman Maclean Ford, McGuane, Doig, James and Lois Welch, Annick Smith--soon brought fame to Missoula, Mont., as a literary enclave.
Kittredge’s first book, a collection of short stories called “The Van Gogh Field,” was published 11 years ago by the University of Missouri. “Only 1,500 copies were printed,” said Kittredge.
Now the 57-year-old Kittredge is writing a memoir for Simon & Schuster, the giant publisher. His powerful literary agent, Amanda Urban of International Creative Management in New York, enticed seven houses to bid for his new book in an auction two years ago.
Although Kittredge’s $53,000 book contract is paltry compared to the earnings of commercial authors, few literary writers and teachers command as much widespread respect as he does.
Clearly, the new status of Western writers reflects a dramatic change in attitudes by the Eastern publishing establishment. The old parochialism is dying, according to more than 30 publishers, writers and booksellers interviewed for this story.
“New York is still the literary capital of the world,” says editor Thomas. “But publishers are more and more in touch with rural, Western America. They’re discovering the West has a real history.”
It wasn’t always that way. “I’ve heard every reason why a book shouldn’t be published,” says literary agent Sobel. “The one I heard most often was: ‘If this novel is about the West or a particular region, who’s going to read it in other parts of the country?’ ”
At the same time, East Coast publishers wholeheartedly backed writers whose art didn’t seem to reach far beyond East Village lofts and New England sitting rooms.
“It drives you crazy when you read novels set in SoHo that are far more parochial than the work we’re doing,” argues Martin, the anthology editor.
Tired of being ignored, small publishers and booksellers in 1974 started the Western States Arts Federation, a nonprofit agency in Santa Fe, N.M. The organization stages a glitzy awards ceremony every two years, honoring writers and poets with $5,000 cash prizes and a national marketing campaign. Literary figures at the level of Robert Penn Warren and Jonathan Glassi, senior editor at Random House and poetry editor of the Paris Review, have served as judges and speakers.
In a 1981 survey of 700 writers in the West, the Western States Arts Federation found the biggest gripe of authors was not being taken seriously by the Eastern literary set, according to Gina Briefs-Elgin of the arts federation.
Oakley Hall, a Western novelist and former director of the UC Irvine Writers’ Program, says a famous book reviewer once seriously told him 40% of the nation’s book buyers were Jewish housewives in the New York area.
“Whether that was true or not I don’t know,” says Hall. “But it shows what the perception was back then.”
Joanna Hurley, head of publicity for Vintage in New York and a former marketing director at the University of New Mexico Press, has vivid memories of those bleak, earlier days in Manhattan.
During her first job at a big New York house in the 1970s, the eager Hurley drilled her bosses with questions about readers’ demographics and regional sales. To her disbelief, an executive sniffed that “the book-buying public is almost all east of the Hudson River.”
When she worked in New Mexico, Hurley flew often to New York to drum up interest in her desert region. The rage for Southwestern art, and even Ralph Lauren’s line of Santa Fe designer clothes, helped her pique the interest of the literary set.
One morning, four years ago, the startled Hurley got a call from the New York Review of Books. The august literary journal wanted to do a special series on Southwestern books.
Likewise, more publishers are eyeing the regional presses and looking for new books with wider appeal.
In 1988, for example, Doubleday/Anchor Books outbid Harper & Row to buy the reprint rights from the University of New Mexico Press for “Mayordomo,” a memoir by Stanley Crawford set in a remote Latino mountain village.
“We’re looking for writers who might be called ‘regional,’ but whose work reverberates beyond that,” says Sallye Leventhal, a senior editor at Anchor.
Recent data show that avid readers dwell throughout the West. In 1987 book sales per household, 14 of the top 25 cities were in Western states, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce and the American Booksellers Assn.
“A lot of people were blown away that Austin, Tex. spent so much on books,” says Hurley. “They assumed the biggest market was New York.” (The biggest book markets are the mega-population areas, New York and Los Angeles.)
With that shortsightedness, will big-time Eastern publishers know how to fully tap the literature? Much of the industry lacks business savvy. Publishing houses chart consumer trends with the finesse of a Detroit auto maker, jokes one book publishing executive.
“It’s done by instinct, book by book,” said a publishing executive in New York. “I’ve never seen a formula for it, and that may be why the West was ignored for so long.”
Creative-writing programs are thriving in the West. After several lean years, universities now report that 200 to 400 students each year compete for prized slots. At least 77 Western colleges offer degrees in creative writing, says Liam Rector, director of the Associated Writing Program in Norfolk, Va., which keeps track nationally of writing programs.
The West also boasts more than 50 writer’s colonies and workshops, from Santa Fe, N.M., to Aspen, Colo., to Squaw Valley, Calif., to Port Townsend, Wash., to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.
“Writing programs have decentralized the study of writing,” says Rector. “With telephones and fax machines, young writers don’t need to run to New York or Europe to do their apprenticeships.”
Western literary journals are popping up like wildflowers, according to Jim Sitter, head of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. Some of the best include the Bloomsbury Review in Denver, the South Dakota Review in Vermilion, S.D., the Northwest Review in Eugene, Ore., and the Sonora Review in Tucson.
Moreover, the grants scene has improved a bit for authors in the West. Although money is tight, a larger proportion of prized grants from the National Endowment for the Arts is going to Western writers and poets.
A decade ago, 34 of 127 grant-winners (or 27%) lived in states west of Texas. Last year, 38 of the 96 authors (or 36%) who won the $20,000 awards were residents of the West.
Perhaps the most important force for the sagebrush writers is that more independent presses are printing more high-quality books. While 20 to 30 publishing titans in New York still command 90% of book sales, thousands of small and nonprofit presses are filling regional marketing niches.
“Our writers can address the rest of the world without getting approval from New York,” says Rick Simonson, a trade book buyer for the Elliott Bay Bookstore in Seattle.
“A lot of people out West are less likely to have studied publishing at Radcliffe and gotten an entry-level job in New York,” adds Jim Sitter, director of the Council of Literary Magazines and Presses. “They’re more independent. They have their own visions.”
Best of all, the publishers and authors know they’re creating a vital, new tradition--a terrain of the imagination that has barely been explored.
“The cowboy writing is good entertainment, but there’s so much more that’s true and real and meaningful,” says Ruth Kay Hapgood, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin. “The frontier isn’t closed yet in the American heart.”