Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: On Noir

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 30 Sep 2005

The debate is interesting for its own sake. All this stuff is categorization after or during the fact, simply to help readers who like the stuff know when something similar comes along. In that way it's useful to both commercial interests and to us, so we can agree on what we're talking about. Not that we ever will. Jim finds my definition too narrow, and I can live with that. I suspect he's been wrong before. I think his definition is too broad to be of much use. Jim suspects I've been wrong before. And we both agree on the definition of hard boiled and its relationship to noir, so we know we've both been right before too.

But it's possible this debate gets tiresome the fourth or fifth time around. Any way we can summarize and post the main positions as sort of an entry to RA, Bill? I know all the discussions, mutilations and permutations run through the archives again and again, but if anyone actually read it all before subscribing to RA, they might think we're just a bunch of needle-headed nerds who take all the fun out of reading the genre and never sign on. That can't be right.

Best, Kerry

At 01:01 PM 30/09/2005 -0700, you wrote:
>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
>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
>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.
>Yahoo! Mail - PC Magazine Editors' Choice 2005
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