First, The CLASSICS.
I think to think I've read my share of classics, but I know I've really barely scratched the surface. It sounds almost silly to say it, but the "classics" are called that for a reason... they have stood the test of time and can still move you like no other books.
Now I have to admit... there were classics I just couldn't get into at all; but I know dang well the problem was ME, not the book. For instance, James Fenimore Cooper. Although he is of major importance-- he inarguably invented the "western," for goodness' sake-- I just can't get into those books. My own mother told me one of her favorite books in childhood was his revolutionary war tale THE SPY, so I feel bad for not liking him. But in fact the only Cooper book I ever finished was LAST OF THE MOHICANS, and to be honest that was in a Reader's Digest condensed version. [D'oh!] It's been a few years now, so maybe I'll try him again.
Also Thomas Wolfe. Now this one I feel less bad about, since the critics still have trouble even calling him classic anymore, but I always think back to my beloved Jack Kerouac's great love of him. Years ago, in the '80s, I read a great interview with the late 1960s, near-death Kerouac in-- I think-- Esquire Magazine, where Jack [drinking and drunk, of course] asked the interviewer [and I may be paraphrasing a bit]:
"OK, let me test you. Who is the greatest of all American writers?"
The interviewer answers: "I think I would say... Melville."
Jack leans back and says, "Hmm. Melville... let's think about that," then suddenly yells:
"Wolfe, THOMAS WOLFE!"
Such a cool story, and its coolness has been behind every attempt I have made to read LOOK HOMEWARD ANGEL or YOU CAN'T GO HOME AGAIN. So far, however, the only piece by Wolfe I have finished is his longish Civil War short story "Chickamauga," which I found to be very fine, indeed.
T. Wolfe... Another guy I will maybe tackle again someday.
But I guess my favorite classics are the ones that are ultimately just amazingly good stories. What fella, to this day-- from ages 9 to 90-- picking them up for the first time, would not be riveted by, say, TREASURE ISLAND or WHITE FANG or TOM SAWYER or WAR OF THE WORLDS... all just gripping stories no one else could have told but their authors. Some classics, like HUCKLEBERRY FINN or AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS are still laugh out loud funny in places, truly an amazing accomplishment.
And then there are the "genre classics," the best popular books in western or mystery or just "best seller" categories. To be honest, these are the kind of "classics" that take up most of my "educational" reading time anymore.
I am currently reading a very interesting non-fiction book about writing and reading by Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Chabon called MAPS AND LEGENDS that, very interestingly, defends "popular fiction" as the real classic literature of any culture. I may be simplifying his argument, but not by much. Chabon is a great writer, by the way. I picked up his AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY for 50 cents at a thrift store last and ate up its 500 or so pages in a couple days... it was that good [although I could have done without the "gay" stuff... hey, sue me... I am a Christian and a conservative fella by nature and will be 50 this year, so take me with the proverbial grain of Na CL. ]
Anyway, his arguments about fiction were very interesting to me, and made me feel less bad about all the reading time I spend in good ol' popular fiction. According to Chabon, nearly all writing is really "fan fiction" on a certain level-- since writers constantly imitate their influences-- so being snobby about good stories well told is pointless.
Having said that, I love the "classics" even when it comes to my beloved westerns. Don't get me wrong, I can read a good "pulpy" western by anyone from Walker Tompkins to Fran Striker-- and then I can read Bret Harte, Mark Twain, and Andy Adams on top of 'em-- but often I tend to stay with guys I really know can deliver.
In my humble opinion, the very greatest, I mean best-of-the-best, Western writers I have yet encountered could be counted on one hand. Now... every Louis L'amour or Zane Grey that captured the public's fancy earned his spurs as far as I am concerned, and I love them all dearly, believe me... but on a personal level this "top of the tops" list is bound to be much shorter.
Understand... there are literally scores of others I have enjoyed, but these, to me, are the masters.
Feel free to differ, of course, but my list would include O. Henry [possibly my favorite author PERIOD, so in many odd ways my favorite "western" writer, even though it's all short fiction], Ernest Haycox, Will Henry, and Dorothy M. Johnson.
O. Henry's westerns are simply amazing, and they are scattered throughout his collected works, not just in his volume HEARTS OF THE WEST. The early critic who called him the "deMaupassant of the sagebrush" was right on target.
In the case of both Haycox and Will Henry, it's a bit of a hit-and miss. Both of these guys have early works that are not in the same league as their later amazing novels and stories, so you just have to explore til you find the great-- and I mean GREAT-- stuff. In both cases I recommend starting with short fiction. You'll be hooked, I'm tellin' ya.
Are there good western writers today? Yup, actually... a bunch of 'em! I am amazed at the good western fiction that goes un-noticed today all the time, and a bunch of it is written by men whose blogs I follow happily.
However, if I had to choose a great-- perhaps even "classic"-- writer of westerns still living, it would be one of my admitted favorites, Bill Pronzini. Although he is most famous-- and justly so-- as a mystery writer, I love his westerns WAY more. They are always amazingly well-researched stories that use the west as a backdrop to make character studies and tales that are really universal. Pronzini will tell unusual stories about aspects of the west you never thought of-- like newspapermen, bartenders, stable hands, salesmen and moonshiners-- and make gripping psychological stories that never actually rely on violence, although it can occur in his fiction. Check him out. Pronzini is a master. [I am starting to think pretty highly of Johnny D. Boggs, too.]
And time would fail me to discuss all the sci-fi and mystery and adventure stuff that goes under-valued in our culture... so I should really stop for now.
In short, its like they say... So many books, so little time.