RARA-AVIS: Re: Neo-nah...

From: Kevin Burton Smith ( kvnsmith@thrillingdetective.com)
Date: 05 Jul 2007

Kerry wrote:

> But you're comparing the classics of the past with average, though
> highly touted, noir of today. "Touting" is not synonymous with
> considered critical evaluation, though if there's any skill that has
> well developed and improved upon in the past century, it is touting.

True. Perhaps it's unfair to compare Dick Blowhard's INTESTINES AND VERMIN BY MOONLIGHT so unfavorably with DOUBLE INDEMNITY or some other much admired noir classic that has stood the test of time.

And maybe it should be spelled "tooting." "Noir" is tossed around so much by some publishers, writers, critics and readers -- most of whom wouldn't know it if James M. Cain's ghost rose from the dead and pissed on their leg -- that the phrase itself has become almost totally meaningless, except as a marketing tag.

"Put a noir sticker on it, boys! Those mouthbreathers will buy anything!"

> The genre has always been about violence. What you're saying is that
> the authors of the classics managed to humanize their violent
> characters more than the average authors of what you're reading
> today.

Yes, that's exactly what I'm saying.

In fact, I felt it strongly enough to cross-post it in a few other places, and I felt gratitude that the majority of the responses from readers and writers and editors have supported me. Although it's got a few people, predictably enough, pretty upset with me.

> I suspect many of the less-skilled, past writers of noir
> shared this failing and we don't recollect them so quickly now.

True enough. Back then, it seemed there was good stuff and bad stuff, and the bad stuff eventually faded away. Now we have good stuff, bad stuff, and stuff we're told relentlessly is good stuff even though its actual quality is irrelevant.

Hopefully, this neo-nah fad of adolescent acting out (suggested upcoming title: STAPLED TO DEATH: THAT WAS EASY) will soon fade away as well, and those currently trying to cash in on it will go back to writing better, stronger books. Some of them, judging from their work in the past, are certainly capable of it.

> And why should the authors of today write about the same things, in
> the same way, as the authors of the past? Chandler and Hammett and
> the rest wrote the best Chandler and Hammet and Cain, etc. If the
> genre is alive, it will continue to be explored in different
> directions and in different ways.

Granted, and I love that about the genre. But not all explorations, even well-intentioned ones, succeed. Are cartoonish characters, ridiculous plots and outrageous coincidence the best these guys can do? Or all that readers in this sub-sub-genre now expect?

> I know there's a good chunk of this list that would disagree with me,
> but I'm not sure the noir classics are morality plays either (in the
> sense of knowing and representing firm moral choices) so much as
> observations of a collapse of institutionalized morality.

Hmmm... maybe. In which case, you could say these current cartoons are indicative of that collapse. But the characters (and their
"actions") frequently depicted in these books are so extreme and disconnected from anything the average reader can identify with that its hard to see these fictional constructs as having much to do with any sort of reality or society at all. They are born, live and die in a vacuum unconnected except in passing to our world.

At the end of a book, I want to think "Wow!" or "Damn!" or "OHMYGAWD!!!"

Not "So what?"

It's one thing to comment on the collapse of institutionalized morality. It's quite another to pander to it, while simultaneously claiming some sort of moral or intellectual high road.

> If authors write about the banality of evil, they are criticized for
> ignoring its effects. If they graphically depict the obscenity of
> evil, they are only trying to shock.

That's too easy, and not what I said at all.

I can deal with the banality of evil, or its obscenity; it's the notion of lovingly depicted scenes of torture and mutilation presented as entertainment, presented in a narrative (and moral) vacuum, that's troubling.

If these guys actually have something to say about violence or evil, maybe they should tether their writing to something a little closer to real life than Saturday morning cartoons.

And if they intend to shock, they better learn to pace themselves. If they start with dismemberment and disembowelment in Chapter One, it doesn't matter how far they take it -- after a while, it's simply tiresome and predictable, no matter how many more body parts they lop off.

> What man can imagine gets done. Crucifixion is hardly new. It was,
> not that long ago in human history, a form of institutionalized
> violence, practiced with decorum and piety. Maybe we should be
> shocked by it.

I'd like to think we should. I sure don't think I want to be someone who's entertained by it.

(But for the record, the fact Al's new book -- which I'm reading now
-- and my initial rant both feature a crucifixion is a coincidence).

>> I may be imagining this, but it seems to me that there's also a
>> growing contempt among the authors for their own characters, a kind
>> of mean-spiritedness that's creeping in -- a condescending sort of
>> self-righteous authorial stance being adapted that says "Yeah,
>> they're all scumbags, so I make them go through all kinds of shit.
>> Cool, huh?"
> No more self-righteous, and a good deal less hypocritical than the
> stance of readers who, made uncomfortable by graphic depictions of
> mindless violence, would like to imagine it does not exist in fact.

Who's saying mindless violence doesn't exist? Certainly not me. And certainly not anyone who's ever read the newspapers or seen the news. But that's real life, which is already essentially mindless and senseless. Narrative fiction should try to make at least some sort of sense. Otherwise it's just a random series of unconnected events.

No, what I'm really disturbed by is not depictions of mindless violence but MINDLESS deptctions of mindless violence. Scenes not injected into a plot to serve the story, but INSTEAD of a story.

> As one of the latter, I find it helps to laugh
> about it all now and again.

Hey, I'm all for black humour. But too much of what I'm told is black humour these days seems more cruel and mean-spirited than funny.

I've found black humour's an approach that generally requires a deft touch, a strong sense of story and a sly wit on the author's part; not a sledge hammer and railroad spikes and chainsaws and dental instruments and gallons of fake blood.

The other much-dreaded wiggle words used to excuse so much heavy- handed, forced writing are "homage" and "parody."

Kevin Burton Smith
"I blog, therefore I am..." http://thrillingdetectiveblog.blogspot.com/

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