Re: RARA-AVIS: Back into the definitional whirlpool (spoilers for FALLING ANGEL)

Date: 16 May 2004


Re your comments below:

> *In practice* the term "noir" has come to mean, for
> crime fans, the Cornell Woolrich/David Goodis style
> of
> story. If you want to replace the meaning of the
> word
> as it's commonly understood, go to it, but the
> burden's on you to show that your definition is
> better.

You see, there's where you're wrong. In practice,
"noir" has been applied much more widely. Long before I came along, it was routinely applied to Chandler and Hammett as well as to Woolrich and Goodis. THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR had whole chapters devoted Matt Helm, Jack Webb, a Le Carre-esque spy movie called THE KREMLIN LETTER, and a chapter on "radio noir" mentions of the kiddie show THE SHADOW. Silver & Ward's FILM NOIR included entires on every single one of the '40's Chandler adaptations, on spy movies like BERLIN EXPRESS, on police procedurals like THE NAKED CITY, HE WALKED BY NIGHT, and T-MEN, and even romantic chick flicks like LAURA and THE SPIRAL STAIRCASE.

The broad application of the term, not only by Duhamel but by most people who've used the term since he coined it, is precisely why an inclusive definition is the only one that will work.
> Don't we already have useful words meaning "dark and
> forboding atmosphere"? Isn't one "gothic"? Isn't
> another "paranoiac"?

Those are more specific. "Gothic" seems to imply a period, and moreover, though the term isn't used as often now, its use for a particular kind of mystery popular in the '60's and '70's featuring young female protagonists in jeopardy both romantic and criminal, gives it an implied specificity that "dark and sinister atmosphere" doesn't have.

Though I'll happily include gothic novels as noir (and that will probably irritate you even more than my including Chandler).

"Paranoiac" is, as far as I know, a medical term, not a literary one. But seriously, it is, once more, too specific, implying a protagonist who believes (in all likelihood, incorrectly) that he is beset by forces beyond his control. Too specific.
> This is the other problem, since obviously there are
> lots of "gradations" as you put it, and while I can
> simply point to STREET OF NO RETURN and say "that's
> a
> noir" and SPY and say "that's a spy story" you have
> to
> reinvent the wheel, claim they're both "noirs",
> remind
> us of your own definition of "noir", and then
> distinguish between them. That's part of what I
> meant
> when I said your definition wasn't useful.

I don't think it's at all difficult to look at at TSWCIFTC and call it noir. And it doesn't require, as you say, re-invention of the wheel. Indeed, it's one of the noir-est spy stories ever published. Further, I'm sure I could find a reference work that refers to either the novel, or the film made from it, as noir. So again, it's not me that's misapplying the term. On the contrary, it's me seeing how the term is applied, and trying to find the common elements among the many different kinds of stories to which it is applied.

And, sorry, those common elements are not "downbeat endings," "unheroic, doomed, or (as Jack might have it) 'screwed' protagonists," "nihilism," or
"fatalism." Many stories classified as "noir" have those elements, but many others don't.

The common element among the many different stories to which the word "noir" is routinely applied, and to which it was applied long before I came along, is a dark and sinister atmosphere. That, and not "stories in the tradition of Goodis and Woolrich" is what
"noir" has meant in practice.

If you don't find that useful, don't blame me. Blame Duhamel and everyone who came after him for applying the term so widely.
> This [the lack of a guarantee of enjoyment]
> is the other part of what I mean when I say your
> definition isn't useful. Well, I suppose if somebody
> wanted to simply read crime stories with forboding
> atmospheres, it might work. Let me rephrase it then:
> your definition is of limited usefulness.

No definition of a particular kind of crime story is going to come with a guarantee that you'll like it if you've like others of the type.

I can get as specific as you want. Let's try something as specific as the "hard-boiled private eye." If you like Spillane, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll like Michael Avallone. If you like Joe Gores, it doesn't necessarily mean you'll like Michael Brett.

Or let's try something even more specific. "Police procedural," a piece of crime fiction in which a major part of the interest is the authentic depiction of the law enforcement profession. And I'll make it even more specific by saying that it has to be set in a large urban area in the US.

All kinds of stories fit that specific definition. I can't guarantee you'll like them all. I can't guarantee that you'll like William Caunitz just because you like Joseph Wambaugh. I can't guarantee that you'll like James Ellroy just because you like Collin Wilcox.

No literary definition can guarantee that you'll enjoy every single example that fits that definition.

> (Do you classify all crime fiction this way? By
> style?
> "Hard-boiled, noir"...I guess the rest would be
> "realistic, poetic, fantastic"?)

The point is, others have classified the works. I'm just trying to identify the common elements.

> I don't think styles define stories. Obviously here
> you're lumping together some pretty dissimilar books
> and authors.

Very dissimilar books are certainly getting lumped together, but I wasn't the one who lumped them. They were lumped before I was ever born. I have just endeavored to discern the common elements. It's not my fault that the common elements don't guarantee a story that will satisfy you or that will sufficiently delineate the differences between a Cain and a Chandler.

> And I, at least, think you miss the
> mark
> as a result: FALLING ANGEL is a PI story with a
> dark
> forboding atmosphere, but I really don't think that
> makes it a "noir". At it's heart it's a straight up
> horror story, done in PI fancydress.

I'm not waving the flag for FALLING ANGEL here. I found it disappointing, and I didn't really think the horror elements and the hard-boiled PI elements meshed well. What I am saying, though, is that the main character was a hard-boiled PI so, whatever else it is, "straight-up horror story," "tale of demonic possession," whatever, it's also a hard-boiled PI story, and that's precisely what the author intended.
> I was saying something much more basic,
> that your classification schema would reclassify a
> lot
> of books, resulting in odd, eccentric groupings. It
> might work for you, of course.

Maybe the groupings are odd. Maybe they're not. But they're not MY groupings. They were getting grouped together long before I ever tried to define the terms.
 All I did was try to determine what these disparate books and films, that had been grouped together by others, had in common.

What they have in common is a dark and sinsiter atmosphere. And that's really about all.

If you don't find that helpful, don't blame me. Blame Duhamel, and Billy Wilder, and Spillane and Collins, and all the other people used the term "noir" so indiscriminately.
> But your definition, on it's
> face quite simple, in practice redraws the lines on
> the map. I want to be sure we're all at least
> talking
> about the same thing.

No it doesn't. The lines were already drawn. All I did was look at the terrain inside the map and describe it.

> And I think tossing
> Chandler in with Cain just obscures the differences
> between the two, the stuff that made them worth
> reading in the first place.

Maybe it does. That's not the point. The point is, I didn't coin the term and toss Chandler and Cain together into the mix. Duhamel did. And before the term had even been coined, Billy Wilder did when he hired Chandler to write the screenplay to DOUBLE INDEMNITY precisely because, in his opinion, Chandler and Cain were mining the same vein.

You may disagree that they were mining the same vein. You may not like the fact that they were spoken of us writing in a similar tradition. You may not like the fact that the mystery editor who coined the term published both of them under the SERIE NOIR imprint. Chandler, in fact, disliked being lumped with Cain, a writer whose work he didn't really respect.

But that doesn't alter the fact that they were already tossed together. I didn't toss them there. They were already there when I came along. All I tried to do was find the elements they, and all the other writers classified as "noir," had in common

> I don't think Chandler or Hammett are noir
> writers. They're pretty much the antithesis of it,
> fact, no matter how much dark and forboding
> atmosphere you spot. You're on somewhat stronger
> ground with Spillane, although Hammer's essential
> strength and heroism doesn't qualify him, IMHO.

Whatever term you're trying to come up with for whatever it is you think Hammett and Chandler (and arguably Spillane) are the antithesis of, it's just not "noir." That's not my opinion. That's the opinion of the guy who coined the term and who published both Hammett and Chandler under the NOIR label.

That's also the opinion of Silver & Ward who included entries on Hammett and Chandler, and the film adaptations of their novels, in their massive FILM NOIR book.

That's the opinion of the folks who put together THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR, which included material on Hammett, Chandler, and Spillane.

That's the opinion of the people who hired me to write an on-line piece on Chandler called MASTER OF AMERICAN NOIR (not MY title; it was the one that was imposed on me, though I admit I didn't object).

If you're going to fall back on how "noir" is used "in practice," and that's what you said at the beginning of your post, then, like it or not, you're going to be stuck with a term that is a lot more inclusive, and unnuanced, than you want it to be.

I didn't make the term inclusive. It already was in practice. To repeat, all I did was try to see what the many disparate works classified by others as
"noir" had in common.

It's not my fault that "dark and sinister atmosphere" is all I could find. Maybe that means I'm not discerning enough. Maybe there are other elements I missed. But whatever the elements are, they have to be something that Chandler and Cain, and all the authors whose work is commonly classified as "noir" have in common.

I'm not the one doing the reclassifying. Chandler and Hammett, and a host of others, were identified and classified as "noir" authors long before the Rara-Avis list was ever founded. If you inist on a definition that deliberately excludes them, you're the one doing the reclassifying.


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