In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Elsewhere | Main | Facts for the Day »

June 22, 2006

Richard Wheeler Reports

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm delighted that I've been able to coax another piece of writing out of our new friend, the Wyoming-based (CORRECTION: whoopsie, make that Montana-based) Western novelist Richard Wheeler. Richard recently attended the convention of the Western Writers of America, and has generously filed this report about the event.

Report From Cody
by Richard Wheeler

The convention of Western Writers of America, held here in mid-June, was remarkable for its size and vitality. There was an overflow crowd attending, the mood was upbeat, and the six hundred-member organization is in fine financial condition.

This is a remarkable feat, considering that western fiction is no longer a significant part of mainstream publishing, and exists only as a niche market. Most mass market publishers have abandoned genre westerns, and the remaining ones concentrate on dead western authors. University presses have to some extent taken up the slack, publishing a little western fiction and nonfiction.

The transformation of WWA from an organization struggling to survive as western fiction and film declined in recent decades, to its robust status today, is largely the result of remaking the organization. It began in 1953 as an authors guild, with membership confined to well-established professionals. In this respect it resembled its brother genre fiction guilds, Mystery Writers of America, and Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.

Some years ago WWA quietly began to ignore its membership bylaws and admitted people who did not qualify. Later this was legitimized by changing the bylaws to admit self-published authors, paving the way for the flood of members who resort to the new print-on-demand vanity presses such as iUniverse or PublishAmerica. Today, perhaps three-quarters of the members have no significant professional credentials. As traditional book publishers retreat from western fiction, that percentage is likely to increase.

The Mystery Writers and Science Fiction Writers have gone the other direction, tightening membership requirements to preserve their professional status, and requiring applicants for membership to be published by an approved list of legitimate royalty-paying presses.

WWA is also steadily expanding its Spur Awards. Two new ones were announced at the Cody convention, one for best original audio novel, and one for best western song. The latter is actually a major departure for WWA, the first move from literature to music, or to put it another way, a departure toward the performance arts. The new awards will draw WWA away from print and into other media.

For an organization wrestling with its irrelevance to traditional publishing (New York editors and publishers and agents no longer bother to attend its conventions), WWA offers an amazing number of awards. With the new additions, it now offers seventeen Spur Awards, plus the Owen Wister Award for lifetime achievement. Some of these awards, notably the Best First Novel and Storyteller, began life as subsidiary honors, and were not intended to be Spur Awards, but recent boards have converted them. WWA hands out more awards than any other genre literature society.

By way of contrast, the larger and more successful guilds have fewer awards. The Science Fiction Writers offer Nebulas in five categories, plus the Damon Knight Memorial, and the Andre Norton Award. The Mystery Writers offer twelve Edgars plus the Mary Higgins Clark Award.

But WWA has found that handing out the candy is a good way to maintain a robust membership. And as its connection to literature wanes, it is expanding into performance arts. (In recent years, members have taken to wearing elaborate costumes, showing up as rhinestone cowboys and cowgirls, mountain men, or even sporting Wild Bill Hickock attire.) Where professional members were lucky to win a couple of Spurs over a lifetime of writing, it is very likely that many modern members will pocket half a dozen or more such awards.

But as WWA abandons its original mission in various ways, by dropping membership barriers and putting poorly qualified judges on the Spur Award juries and sliding away from literature, it also loses its reason to exist as well as any prestige it had acquired through the decades of its life. One sensed the hollowness at the conclusion of the Spur Awards banquet. There used to be an afterglow.


Many thanks to Richard Wheeler. We hope he'll continue to contribute pieces to this blog. You can read Richard's previous contribution here.



posted by Michael at June 22, 2006


Interesting, the change in tone from "how nice!" to "uh-oh!!" as Wheeler's essay progresses.

What was it about bad money driving out the good?

I normally skip these things, but the gummint agency I work for has a yearly breakfast thing wherein awards are presented. I went to one a few years back and was astonished at the number of awards being handed out by a smallish agency (about 200 employees at the time). I'm pretty sure a quarter of the staff got something, and the proportion might well have been higher. Perverse me, I think that when everyone is special, then no-one is.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on June 22, 2006 7:45 PM

I wonder if the Spurs weren't their own worst enemy even before they devolved into an "Everybody Gets A Trophy!" organization. I was an adolescent lad in the 80s who kept a dog-eared Louis L'Amour book in his back pocket, I was game to give Spur winners a try, but gave up the chase after several disappointing reads: they had neither the snap of L'Amour's "don't let character get in the way of the action" policy, nor the exapnsive and quirky bonhomie (so vulnerably prone to going sour) of Larry McMurtry.

Thought I'd also link to this Salon round-up of the "new western". Allen Barra asserts that the Western is as popular as ever, yet makes no mention of how many of these authors got a Spur (he doesn't bother with sales figures or author's advances, either). I've read a handful of the books he mentions, and would consider them better books than the Spur winners of my youth. Given the catholicity of my taste in Westerns (I even - gasp! - enjoy Cormac McCarthy), I'm not at all sure how to explain my aloofness toward the Spurs. Go figure.

Posted by: Whisky Prajer on June 23, 2006 10:12 AM

We should note that Wheeler is based in Livingston, MONTANA, which is the eastern counterpoint to Missoula, which has fancied itself the Western lit capital of the state. I realize that to some Easterners, WY and MT are interchangeable and, in fact, some WY writers are embraced by MT book festivals.

I think that "prize inflation" parallel to "grade inflation" comes out of a wish to keep everyone happy and paying dues. But also, there seems to be a constant seeking for criteria of value. The sorting that used to be done by important and thoughtful publishing houses has been destroyed by the multi-international corporations who demand 10% profits. The people who used to be discriminating editors have become agents, who must make money by promoting what will sell. The academic literary world is dominated by unintelligible theory. Membership in prestigious organizations has been diluted and confused by self-publishing. So there is a weak hope that putting a prize on the book jacket, maybe in the form of a gold seal, will be some kind of indicator. The realization that bookstores are PAID to put some books out as "recommended" in prominent places is just dawning.

People simply don't know how to define quality, can't always figure out where to find it, and that applies to ALL the humanities and arts. Thus, the great success of blogs like this.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 23, 2006 11:46 AM

Montana and Wyoming are two different states? OK, if you say so: corrected, tks. And don't call me NY-centric. OK, go ahead and call me NY-centric ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 23, 2006 12:04 PM

Isn't "New York" one of those eastern states? Like Indiana or North Carolina?

I know it's somewhere back there.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on June 23, 2006 2:22 PM

Grade inflation is a good analogy. The two new WWA Spur Awards will be "cheap," --that is, there will be small fields of competitors. There are only a few original western audio books published each year. And only a handful of WWA members are able to compose and record a song. (The rest of us are excluded.) These awards, of course, are open to nonmembers.

Not many years ago, when WWA was operating under higher ideals, it abolished the Spur Award for Historical Novel, because there were too few entries and it was considered a cheap award. That was done after a year in which there were eight entries. Nowadays, the idea is to hand out as much candy as possible. As Mr. Pittenger says, when everyone is considered special, then no one is. The Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City hands out just one award for adult fiction a year. And at a black-tie event, too. They understand the power of costume to give importance to the occasion.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on June 23, 2006 2:58 PM

Michael, at least I didn't say you were in a bubble neighborhood in a bubble city!

In the window of a bookstore in Saskatoon was a poster that showed Saskatoon and Saskatchewan looming large in the foreground -- NY was a tiny mote in the distance. Which shows that not only do people in Saskatoon read the New Yorker (don't you wonder sometimes where all those unread copies go?) but also that they can make fun of themselves. Not always a lot else to do in the winter there.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on June 23, 2006 3:02 PM

The Private Eye Writers of America have announced the Shamus Award nominees. They award four categories: Best hardcover, best original paperback, best first novel, and best short story, and these four in a crowded field. Western Writers of America is now offering seventeen Spur Awards in a small field.

Posted by: Richard S, Wheeler on June 25, 2006 2:32 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?