Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: On Noir

Date: 30 Sep 2005

Mr. Harrington,

I've been staying out of this discussion, as I have the last five or six times it's come up, because I don't see the point in trotting out the same arguments about what "noir" means, as applied to crime fiction, ad infinitum. But one comment you made struck me:

> Someone mentioned the use of the Noir "label" as a
> marketing tool,this is unfortunate, but is
> indicative of how advanced capitalist society treats
> the arts. It tries to commoditize them like
> everything else. And to a large degree it's been
> successful. The end result is the Walmartization of
> the novel. (And, also, I fear the beginning of the
> end of the third person in the commercial novel.)

This implies that "noir" had some kind of pure meaning that commerce has somehow vitiated, and that's just wrong.

The fact of the matter is that "noir," as applied to the mystery, started out (and in fact is still used) as nothing more than a brand name. Serie Noir was the mystery line of the French publisher Gallimard. And all a book had to have to get classified as noir, as far as Gallimard's mystery editor, Marcel Duhamel, was concerned, was have a dark and sinister atmosphere. As someone else put it, it had to show that the world, at least for the characters in that book, was a dark place.

There was no requirement of "doom," "fate,"
"inexorable forces," or any of that crap. Lots of the books Duhamal published had that, sure, but lots didn't. Hammett, Chandler, Burnett, McBain, even Richard S. Prather, were all published under the Serie Noir logo.

To say that noir means something more than a dark and sinister atmosphere pervading the story, and that's really all that the books published, and being published, under the Serie Noir logo had and have in common, is to say that the people who coined the term, and applied it to the mystery genre (and who coined it and applied it for strictly commerical reasons), used it incorrectly. Frankly, that just seems ludicrous on its face.

I get tired as hell of all this parsing and nattering about what the line of demarcation is between
"hard-boiled" and "noir." There IS no line of demarcation. There's stuff that's noir, and stuff that's hard-boiled, and stuff that's both. And the definitions aren't, and never have been, that narrow.

If you want to talk about crime fiction that has a nihilistic bent in which the character, no matter what he does, is doomed to a bad end, go ahead. If you want to say that's what consitutes noir, well I guess nothing I say will convince you, or anyone else otherwise. But to say that the intrusion of filthy commerce into the pure world of noir is a recent and polluting phenomenon is just to ignore the history of the term.

Let me add that, despite the fact that my only contribution this month has been to disagree with you, I am very grateful for your participation on the site and for your insights and contributions here.


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