Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: noir

Date: 09 Oct 2005


Re your comments below:

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

I've given reasons historical and practical for why I think the definition of noir is broader than you. You've given nothing except, "This is what I think."

Which argument is based on logic and which on sophistry?

"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?'"

No, I've gotten the argument just fine. I'm using a word more broadly than you do. I'm using it in the way it was originally used, just as "movie" was originally used as a shortened term for "moving picture."

You're using the word "noir" more narrowly. And I'm arguing that your narrow use of that word is just as wrong as a narrow use of "movie" that eliminate an entire class of the form, such as animated cartoons. Now do YOU get the analogy?

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

And that's an argument you mount after saying "all joking aside?" Well, I don't include ANNE OF GREEN GABLES because, first of all, it's not a mystery, and noir, in the context of this list, is about mystery
(crime, suspense, call it what you will 'cause I don't want to start another word war) fiction.
> 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.

Again, you miss the point, and, I think deliberately. If you use a word that is meant to be used broadly in a narrow context, you MISuse the word. "Mystery," as it is commonly used, has a broad meaning. But there are some people who use it narrowly to mean ONLY whodunits and, when confronted by another kind of mystery, will say, "That's not a mystery. That's a thriller." or "That's a procedural" or "That's criminal protagonist."

Similarly, noir, as it is commonly used, and as it was originally coined, has a broad meaning. But some people, including yourself, use it narrowly, and are just as wrong.

> 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?

If you're going to admit that Spillane, and particularly ONE LONELY NIGHT, is noir, than you've essentially admitted that you've lost the argument. You might not like Mike Hammer, and you might disapprove of his tactics, but he's clearly the hero, he vanquishes the villains, he rescues the damsel, and he analyzes the clues correctly so that he can reveal the hitherto unknown identity of the main bad buy. He triumphs not only over the villains, but over the chaotic environment in which he operates.

Everything you say noir isn't, heroic, triumphant, with solutions the protagonist can reach by logic, ONE LONELY NIGHT is.

Similarly, I might not approve of Parker or his methods, but, in THE OUTFIT, we're clearly supposed to root for him over the forces of monlithic Organized Crime. Again, like Hammer, Parker sets out to achieve a goal, and he achieves it. I have a hard time describing him as a hero, but he's clearly a triumphant protagonist, the main thing you say a noir protagonist is NOT.

But, as far as MOST people are concerned, they are both noir because they both, and particularly ONE LONELY NIGHT, have the dark, sinister atmospherics that mark noir fiction.
> 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?

More sophistry. Everyone on this list, including you, knows that words can have more than one meaning depending on the context. Usually the second meaning is related, in a figurative way, to the original meaning.

But since you're pretending NOT to know that, I'll use two examples.

"Hard-boiled" literally means to cook something, usually an egg, in boiling water long enough to make it hard and tough. Because an egg that is hard-boiled becomes tougher, "hard-boiled" has also become a colloquialism for "tough." Ultimately, in the context of crime fiction, it has come to be used as a modifier for a type of mystery denoted by a tough attitude and a colloquial style.

Similarly, "mystery" itself, means something unexplained or not understood. In its original religious context, it meant a supernatural truth that COULDN'T be explained or understood in mortal human terms. Its original meaning, and, I suspect, its use in so many of the earliest titles in the genre, has led to its being used, figuritively, as the generic word for fiction involved with crime.

Which brings us to "noir," literally, as you point out, the color black. And the dark, sinister connotations of that color ("It was a black night."
"The villain was wearing a black hat." Etc.) have led it to be used as the modifier for a type of mystery denoted by its particular use of dark, sinister atmospherics.
> 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.

No it's not, for the simple reason that there are too many examples of mysteries, in a variety of mediums, that are generally classified, not by me but by others, as noir, that don't have the themes you say are the defining characteristics.

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

Why? I'm not a surveyor. Look at the books on the Serie Noire list. Look at the movies generally identified as noir. Figure out an average level, find a level that's a bit lower than that average, and that's probably the borderline. I do know that it doesn't HAVE to be so dark that the protagonist is always, as in Jack's definition "screwed." And I know, because you've already admitted it, that stories that have heroes who triumph over adversity can easily make the cut.

"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."

See above.

"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."

Sure you can. Two people can agree that, for example,
"hard-boiled" means "tough and colloquial," and still disagree about whether or not a particular character fits the parameters. That's why a lot of people on this list say James Bond is hard-boiled, but I don't.

For me, he's a bit too polished, a bit too precise, a bit too much the upper-class British genteleman. But I can easily recognize that it's a close call, particularly since he's the most famous example of a mystery sub-genre, the spy story, that is generally regarded as being well within the province of
"hard-boiled." For that reason, I've never objected to Bond's being discussed on this list on the basis of his being "not hard-boiled," and have never even brought it up except when asked.

Similarly, I have a hard time regarding P.D. James's Adam Dalgliesh as hard-boiled (though very often his stories are quite clearly noir) for many of the same reasons. He's too overtly cultured, too precise in the use of language, too much the upper-class British gentleman. But, again, it's a close call, particularly since he, like Bond, is in a mystery sub-genre, the police procedural, widely regarded as well within the purview of "hard-boiled." Again, if someone wants to discuss him, I'll raise no objections.

In the same way, if someone calls a story or novel
"noir" that doesn't seem, to my eye, to meet the requirements, that doesn't seem QUITE dark and sinister enough to qualify, I doubt if I'll raise an objection. I'd rather be too inclusive than too exclusive.

In your entire long post, you've only managed to raise two cogent arguments. The first:

> 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!

Yeah, but it was marketers that COINED the term, and you've already said that you accepted my "original usage" point, or at least admitted that it was convincing. But on to common usage.

What examples could I offer that you couldn't claim were "merely anecdotal?" It's not like I can take a poll of the nation, or the world, at large.

Nevertheless, I'll offer one piece of evidence that I regard as very solid. THE BIG BOOK OF NOIR is a 1998 anthology of articles and essays about noir fiction in a variety of mediums, with contributions by present and former Rara-Avians like Bill Crider, Robert Skinner, Ed Gorman, Ettienne Borgers, and Dick Lochte, as well as non-Rara-Avis members like Max Allan Collins, Gary Lovisi, Stephen King, et al.

Sticking strictly to the section on prose fiction
(there are separate sections on movies, comics, and TV/radio, which also prove my point, but we'll stick to prose), we have whole chapters about Harry Whittington, Mickey Spillane, Donald Hamilton, John D. MacDonald, Ross Macdonald, Charles Williams, Patricia Highsmith, et al. Other chapters include shorter entries on Patricia Cornwell, Leigh Brackett, Evan Hunter, James Reasoner, Joe Lansdale, Bill Pronzini, James Ellroy, W.R. Burnett, William P. McGivern, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Dean Koontz.

That's pretty damned broad! And this isn't a bunch of
"bottom-line" publishers looking to gull the unsuspecting public. This is a group of respected experts in the field who all use "noir" in a much wider context than you insist it has. And, at the risk of repeating myself yet again, I'd venture to suggest that about the only thing all of these authors' works have in common is a dark, sinister atmosphere. There may be a few who don't even have that, to my eye, but they evidently did to whoever wrote about them for this book.
> 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?

For the same reason I reject the notion that "mystery" only means "whodunit." Because it's not what the people who coined the term meant, and it's not how it's commonly used now.

Which brings me to what really frosts me about this narrow use of the term.

When someone says, "That's not a mystery that's a thriller," there's an unspoken addendum. "What I'm choosing to call mysteries are superior to thrillers, and that is why I'm choosing to deliberatley exclude thrillers when I use the word."

When I hear someone wax on about the profound insights into the meaninglessness of life that noir fiction so expertly depicts, or how Hammett can't be noir because his character are too tough, or Chandler can't be noir because Marlowe's too heroic, and noir is ultimately about characters marching reluctantly to their doom, what I'm hearing is, "What I'm calling noir is more important and deep than the mere entertainments most people mean when they use the term, so I'll use it in a narrow sense that specifically excludes the stuff I regard as inferior."

That kind of elitism does, I admit, push a hot button for me. And if I sounded too passionate in the course of this thread, that's why.

But I've said everything I have to say on the subject, and I've said it all before, which is the reason that, until this recent thread, I've stayed out of the discussions, for the better part of a year, every time it, or the "hard-boiled" argument came up.

I'm simply tired of repeating myself. And, I suspect, most of you are tired of hearing me repeat myself.

So, Kerry, if you're not convinced, I leave you to the satisfaction of having the last word. I'm retiring from the field.


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