Who’s Butch Cassidy? For Whom Do We Authors Write?

Here I am, my brain processing facts, connections, and others’ analyses for two different books. I can’t believe I started writing at such a late period in my life, but it is what it is, and I have to be hyper-vigilant about my interpretations and analyses, and even word choices. Sometimes I type a word totally opposite of what my old brain has told me to write. Where did that come from? I question myself. But this isn’t my only concern about the time and effort it takes to research and write a book. Looming over my head is the realization that I will have a small audience, and there is very little I can do to change this.

Oh, it’s not about the subjects, nor is it because of political division today. ( I try to stay away from the fray.) My writing is not bad. At least, think I do a fair job. No, it is the audience in general.

On my way home from Wyoming two weeks ago, I sat next to a young lady (everyone is young to me), who engaged in conversation. She asked why I was in Riverton.

“Vacation?”

“No,” I answered. “I am researching for a book I am writing.” She perked up.

“What’s the topic?” she asked.

“The relationship between Butch Cassidy and a fellow named Hank Boedeker.”

Her face went totally blank. “Oh,” she said.

“You don’t know who Butch Cassidy is, do you? How about Paul Newman?” Still blank. “Robert Redford?” I was getting sick to my stomach.

“No, but I will google them later,” she promised.

It hit me. Why in the h___ am I writing a book about this topic if some Millennials and other young Americans have no clue as to who these people are or have reason to know? Of course she didn’t know who Butch Cassidy was. The movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out in 1969, making the outlaw a household name for years, but apparently not as long as I had thought. This is akin to my asking who actor Tyrone Power was or what was Gone With the Wind. Wait, I know these things. I have always been interested in our societal history. I can cite movies, actors, outlaws, American history facts, origins of expressions, and other apparently useless trivia. I love museums, archives, places important to American history. And, I love books.

Sadly, America’s younger generations have an enormous cultural deficit. Not surprising. I used to do a family history unit with my high school freshmen. “Fill in your family tree four generations back,” I instructed them, handing each a paper illustrated with an elaborate oak tree, its canopy ready to enter each student’s name, sets of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents. “Have one anecdote to share with the class when you come back, featuring an individual from your tree,” I added. How hard is that?

After the Christmas holidays, when families generally get together and tell stories, it was time for students to present their anecdotes and trees. Nearly a third of the students had not been able to complete their trees. They were frustrated, not at me, but at the realization they had missed something. Some had mixed families due to divorce. Some had a parent desert them, taking that side of family history with him or her. Tragically, some parents simply did not know who their own grandparents were and could not share this info.

If our children can not even tell where they came from, how on earth will they know and understand the context in which their great-grandparents lived? Why should these kids even care at all?

America has had hundreds of years of recorded history, and it absolutely can not all be taught in school. Teachers have to pick and choose watershed moments for discussion, relegating everything else to rote regurgitation of useless information–because facts mean absolutely nothing without context. Living in Texas and knowing how our state textbook committee works is also scary. Political correctness and politics changes interpretation depending on the makeup of the committee, and then Texas sells her textbooks to other states in the union. Consequently, there are gaps of information and sometimes biased interpretations.

At a recent Western Writers of America conference, a panel of editors, publicists, and agents fielded questions from an anxious audience. One panel member warned authors that young adult literature (YA) books had to be small books, only so many pages, or books would not be accepted. Publishing-house representatives agreed, citing that they would not take any lengthy books. Yikes! At my editor’s request, I had cut 50,000 words out of my Frank Little and the IWW book, the entire length of a typical YA book, to keep expense down. Later a few individuals actually offered to buy those pages from me, so interested were they in my subject. But they were interested in our shared cultural history and had backgrounds that supported their interests.

An individual on Facebook, also connected to Western Writers of America, posted a stat that indicated teenager readership has declined thirty percent. Sadly, quick-search-engines guide our youth’s edification.

So, here we are today with quite a conundrum. For whom do we authors write? We may not have future audiences who generally love to read like older Americans did. They had patience, usually knowing that what they selected was worth reading to the end. On the other hand, Millennials and younger generations are adept technologically, expecting quick gratification on their gadget-screens. Keep it short and simple, right? I see no remedy in educational trends, instead exacerbation since schools have moved toward digital instructional techniques.

If a person wants to know something about the past, he or she can just google the topic. Not very academic or factual, no thoughtful questions involved, but at least a baby step toward learning our cultural background.

“Butch Cassidy”

Robert Leroy Parker, better known as Butch Cassidy, was a notorious American train robber and bank robber, and the leader of a gang of criminal outlaws known as the “Wild Bunch” in the American Old West. Wikipedia

Think the girl on the airplane looked old Butch up? I hope so. 

Jane Little Botkin

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