Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: noir

From: Kerry J. Schooley (
Date: 03 Oct 2005

At 03:24 PM 02/10/2005 -0700, you wrote:

>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?"

Ho, and you accuse ME of sophistry? I recall you making exactly the above argument many times, for your definition of noir.

>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

You've done well with your original usage argument, but I'm afraid you'll have to provide more evidence for COMMON usage than your say-so. Certainly there is a commercial usage, but marketers are just as likely to use the word incorrectly as anyone else- especially since they've the well recognized motivation to try to sell more product to more people by describing the product as broadly as possible. Have you never purchased something only to discover it does not live up to its advertising, Jim? Man, have I got some stuff to sell you!

And why discount other opinions on RA (not just my own) including some noir authors who suggest they had more than atmospherics in mind when they wrote the books? These are people who read and study the subject, actively looking for what makes this particular genre work for them. Why discount their definitions too?

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.

I don't think you've quite got the argument here Jim. The analogy would be to extend the use of the word "movie" to mean anything that moves. Given that the world hurtles through space, there's little useful distinction in that. It's only useful when we answer "compared to what?"

In fact, the word "animation," though similar to "movie" is commonly used to make a distinction between two types of similar arts, one based upon the photography of animated beings and another based upon the animation of inanimate drawings or models through the use of photography.

All joking aside, there ARE dark moments in Anne of Green Gables. Why isn't it, by your definition, considered noir in common parlance?

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,

Quite the reverse. If you say "mystery" you will include stories in which the question is not only who did the crime, but how the crime came about, how it was solved or possibly some other bit of information revealed in the telling. Use of the word "whodunit" implies a subcategory of mystery that to the exclusion of these other questions, at least as the story's main purpose.

>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.

Not necessarily. Spillane's world of vigilante justice implies a chaotic world to me, one in which a commonly accepted standard of civilization (the justice system) is doomed. It has been a long time since I read The Outfit so please forgive me if I've got it wrong, but wasn't that about how one man could humble a large, powerful organization? Who wasn't doomed in that scenario? The mob that was vulnerable to guerilla tactics or the thief whose purpose was necessarily diverted to that risky activity?

>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

Well, thanks for the permission.

> Use "whodunit" or "puzzle" if you mean
>whodunit/puzzle, not "mystery."

We covered this.

> 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.

So generic it is without meaning. Therefore we've felt the need to fit a meaning to an admittedly old word.

Speaking or original words, by your argument "noir" would be French for
"black" and that's the end of it. That's what it meant originally, and that's still common parlance in France and the many places in the world that use the language. Anybody who came along and used the word to describe a category of literature would be simply be wrong because more people, even those describing the colour of automobiles or clothing, use the word to mean the equivalent of black than for any other purpose. Who are you to change it?

>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

Okay, talk to me like I'm an unperceptive six year old, because I just don't see where you're setting the cut-off. Tell me the required degree. What is the necessary treatment. Because that's all I've been telling you Jim. The degree or required treatment is one at which it becomes apparent that efforts to transcend the human condition are doomed. You got another one, lay it out.

> To suggest that "dark" is simply too
>broad because it necessarily encompasses all of
>western literature is mere sophistry.

To fail to define the degree or treatment is simply to fail to make your point.

>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).

Okay, I've accepted there'll be disagreements. But where is your frontier? And don't just repeat the old argument. Tell me at what point dark atmospherics become noir, please.

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

Oh yes they do. You can't argue (discuss?) the case by case application if you have no idea of the definition. That's precisely what you've been saying about meaning and language, Jim.

>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.

If I accepted that it would mean you have no idea what you're talking about, and I don't accept that. I believe you (and I mean you specifically Jim) can set useful parameters for the meaning of noir.

> The term means what it

Where have I heard that before? Wait a minute: "...the
'Lewis Carroll' basis of 'When I use a word, it means precisely what I want it to mean, no more no less'?"

Wasn't that supposed to describe MY thought process, Jim?

Best, Kerry

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 03 Oct 2005 EDT