Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: the evolving definition of noir

From: Sandra Ruttan (
Date: 20 Dec 2006

On 12/20/06 12:21 PM, "JIM DOHERTY" <> wrote:
> T,
> Re your comment below:
> "Today, noir does not have a very definite meaning;
> however, it is easy to see when something _isn't_
> noir, which shows that, however hazy, it is a robust
> concept and not a pure contraption of critics."
> Finally common ground! It IS hard to pin down the
> meaning of noir, which is why I've always opted for a
> fairly generaly definition based on what seemed to me
> the common qualities all fiction/film deemed "noir"
> seemed to have.
> Similarly, though, it is, as you say, usually easy to
> determine what is NOT noir.
This raises a different but related question in my mind. I think people would agree that over time the meanings of words change, definitions evolve. This seems to be the case with the definition of noir. With other things I might applaud expanding the definition to be more inclusive and more accurately reflect modern society, but when it comes to genre and subgenre definitions I wonder if this is a bad thing.

For example, with the thriller awards last July I found myself perplexed. Stuart MacBride¹s book Cold Granite ­ while a fantastic piece of fiction and something I¹d class under noir myself ­ was not what I¹d call a thriller. Others I know expressed the same sentiment. This didn¹t stop me from being delighted for him to be nominated, but end of the day it left me completely confused at what exactly is considered a thriller anymore, and that¹s a personal bugbear of mine because where I live thrillers are not put in the
Œmystery¹ section of the chain bookstores ­ they¹re put in general fiction. Yet Bruen, MacBride, Kernick ­ you¹ll find them in mystery.

My husband just read Bust by Ken Bruen and Jason Starr and is reading London Boulevard and he asked me what noir is. After all the discussion here I¹m left saying I¹m not sure anymore, but I always thought of The Wire as noir. Fundamentally, anything can happen. It is what I would call dark realism ­ nobody is safe from a bullet, people don¹t turn a blind eye to the bad stuff happening in the world. The Œheroes¹ are not insulated and ensured safe passage.

Then I started thinking about books I¹ve thought of as noir and realized this isn¹t true of many of them. We¹re going to spend January mulling it over. Kevin just ordered a collection of 30 Œfilm noir¹ classics.

Meanwhile, what I¹m wondering is whether people think the definitions should be expanded, or whether they should be narrowly construed and that we should have more subgenres instead of blurring the lines. In part, I ask for a selfish reason. I¹m on a panel in June discussing the blurring of the lines between the subgenres, and I¹m wondering if expanding the definitions ultimately results in watering them down so much as to make them meaningless.

Thoughts? On list or off, most welcome.


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