Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: noir

Date: 02 Oct 2005


Re your comments below:

> Yeah, I understand your argument Jim. I just
> disagree with it. And I accept
> that by your definition I am wrong. I can live with
> that. I don't have to
> agree with it to value it.

On what basis do you disagree with it, other than the
"Lewis Carroll" basis of "When I use a word, it means precisely what I want it to mean, no more no less?"

Apparently, original usage doesn't matter. Apparently, COMMON usage doesn't matter. If it doesn't mean what you want it to mean, you'll simply use it the way you want to, anyway. Have I got that right?
> Criticism and categorization are as creative as
> the original writing itself. There is no ultimate
> authority to appeal to,
> in noir or anything else. That (according to my
> definition) is exactly the
> point of noir. Just because someone is the first to
> come up with a term
> doesn't mean that's the end of the discussion.

If the term is still used substantially the same way as it was originally used, and it is, that pretty much IS the end of the discussion. Does "movie," for example, mean mean only films that have live actors in it, thus eliminating animation? Of course not, and for anyone to say that those who include cartoons in the broader rubric are wrong, just because s/he doesn't think including cartoons is particularly useful for his/her purposes doesn't "extend the discussion," it simply uses the word incorrectly.
> And don't give me this BS about you not caring how
> many angels dance on the
> head of a pin. You care passionately. You can't
> leave this discussion
> alone, by your own admission. You just don't like it
> when someone comes up
> with a different number than you do.

I've stayed out of the discussion for the better part of year, and the issue has come up plenty of times in that period, believe me. And if you don't check the archives. I wasn't jonesing in the least for another set-to on this issue, and the only thing that drew me back in after all this time was an assertion that the recent intrusion of commercial interests was somehow distorting the original meaning of the term, an assertion that was so historically inaccurate that I couldn't let it pass.

Yes I care about the issue, but only to the degree that I care about proper usage. Words mean things, and language is the only method of communication we have. When you use a word incorrectly you communicate badly.

If you say "hard-boiled" when you really mean "private eye," you're misusing the term and, moreover, implying that characters like Joe Friday (who's a cop), Matt Helm (who's a secret agent), Parker (who's a professional armed robber), or Flash Casey (who's a newspaperman) are somehow outside of the parameters. You may prefer that "hard-boiled" referred exclusively to private eye stories, you'd probably find it more useful if that's all it referred to, but it's incorrect usage, it communicates badly, and it confuses the issue.

If you use "mystery" when you mean "whodunit" or
"puzzle," you imply that any story in which the villain is known to the audience from the first is NOT a mystery, an assertion that excludes, for example, the short stories collected in THE SINGING BONE by R. Austin Freeman, most of the episodes of COLUMBO, virtually all 75 years of DICK TRACY, the Holmes/Moriarty duel described in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Final Problem," and the duel between Dupin and Minister D-- (one that prefigures the Holmes/Moriarty conflict) in "The Purloined Letter." If you say "mystery" when you mean "whodunit," no matter how much you may WANT "mystery" to mean something more restictive, you might find it more useful if it was used more restrictively, but if you do so you are misusing the term as it's been understood since Poe first created the form, and you are confusing the issue.

Simlarly, if you use "noir" when you really mean
"screwed," you exclude PI novels like Spillane's ONE LONELY NIGHT, procedurals like Goodis's OF MISSING PERSONS, gangster novels like Stark's THE OUTFIT, romantic suspensers like Vera Caspary's LAURA , and a whole lot of other crime fiction that fits the parameters of the term as most people understand it. You may WANT "noir" to mean something more restictive, you may find it more useful if it meant something more restrictive, but it's incorrect usage, bad communication, and it confuses the issue.

Use "private eye" if you mean private eye, not
"hard-boiled." Use "whodunit" or "puzzle" if you mean whodunit/puzzle, not "mystery." And use "screwed" or
"modern tragedy" or "nihilistic" or else come up with some similar term to describe what you mean. "Noir" already means something more generic.

> Yes, I think your definition is too broad to be
> useful. Isn't crime and
> murder itself considered dark in western culture? So
> what then separates
> noir from other crime fiction? Tragedy is dark too,
> atmospherically. So
> what separates noir from tragedy as well? Even in
> the classic love-story
> plot, between meeting and getting the girl, boy
> briefly loses her. That too
> could be said to be atmospherically dark. In fact,
> in western literature
> plot hinges on conflict. You say it's enough that
> there are dark
> atmospherics in the story, but the presence of
> conflict suggests dark
> atmospherics in almost every story.

Sure it does, but, as you very well know, it's a question of treatment and degree. A comic romp by Donald Westlake treats the dark subject matter much more lightly than a brooding PI novel by Tucker Coe or a gangster novel by Richard Stark, and, waht's more, that's obvious to anyone who's the least bit perceptive. To suggest that "dark" is simply too broad because it necessarily encompasses all of western literature is mere sophistry.

Of course there will be disagreements at the frontiers over whether a given piece of work meets the defintions. That's why, for example, some people regard James Bond or Batman as hard-boiled and I don't. Or why some might insist that the gothic suspense PBO's that were so popular in the '60's and
'70's are noir (because they usually have dark, sinister atmospherics) while others would not (because they lack the grittiness most expect from noir fiction due to its close association with hard-boiled).

These are issues that can be dealt with on a case by case basis, but they have nothing to do with the broader definition.

> I respect your
> research into the works
> and sources you site, (and you inspire me to want to
> do more of that
> myself, time permitting) but the conclusion you come
> to regarding the
> definition is, quite simply, useless.

Well, it may be useless. I won't argue about that. You know best whether a term is useful to you or not. But saying the definition's useless is not the same thing as saying that it's incorrect. If a broad definition of noir is useless to you, that's not my fault, and not my problem. The term means what it means. If you want a term that encompasses a more strictly defined kind of story, come up with something new, 'cause noir's already taken.


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