Word for Word: ‘I lost my heart to a Western’
The summer before I started college, I lost my heart to a Western. As I waited nervously for my Leaving Cert results, I distracted myself with Larry McMurtry’s novel Lonesome Dove , gripped by the adventures of two Texas rangers as they drove a giant herd of cattle across the countryside.
To understand how unlikely this state of affairs was, you should know that my favourite books at the time were Angela Carter ’s The Magic Toyshop , Dodie Smith ’s I Capture the Castle and Susan Faludi ’s Backlash . And yet, to my great surprise, I adored Lonesome Dove . Every so often I’d think, I can’t believe I’m reading a Western! Then I’d get back to the rugged world of Gus, Call, Newt and the other cowboys.
Lonesome Dove was widely praised by literary critics; it won a Pulitzer Prize after all. But it was as much of a Western as anything by Zane Grey. And reading it taught me that there are gems in every literary genre, even ones you think you don’t like. Of course, I prefer certain sorts of books to others. But in more than 30 years of fiction reading, I’ve read intelligent, complex, funny and compelling books in almost every genre, from romance to crime to fantasy.
There are certain genres that don’t appeal to me. I’ve never liked the sort of fantasy novel in which people speak in faux-archaic dialect and refer to children as “younglings”; I don’t go for gory thrillers. Yet I loved The Lord of the Rings and Thomas Harris ’s Red Dragon .
I’ve come to the conclusion that the only books that could never win me over are the macho adventures of former soldiers. (You’d be surprised how many of them there are.) And even then I’m willing to be (very) surprised.
Truly great books are often seen as exceptions to their genre rather than as a particularly good example of it – you probably won’t find 1984 or even Slaughterhouse Five in the science-fiction section of most bookshops. There’s an assumption that if a book is brilliant, it somehow escapes its genre box and becomes “literature” instead (and it has been well argued that “literary fiction” is a genre in itself).
But every fictional genre, even the most despised, contains extraordinary works of art. Yes, there are a lot of terrible romances and fantasies and science-fiction novels. But there are an awful lot of terrible literary novels too.
Ruling out entire genres based on a preconceived idea of what they are like means wilfully depriving yourself of potentially life-enhancing books. After Lonesome Dove I didn’t become a Western convert; I didn’t go out looking for more tales of complex cowboys.
But I never judged a book by its genre again. And every time I’m given a book that doesn’t look like my sort of thing, I remember the summer of 1993 and a girl who couldn’t believe she was reading a Western.
Anna Carey ’s debut novel, The Real Rebecca , won the Senior Children’s Book prize at the 2011 Irish Book Awards. Her second book, Rebecca’s Rules , was shortlisted for the same prize in 2012.