Re: "Grimly Existential" as Opposed to "Noir" (Was: Re: RARA-AVIS: Re: Noir Comic Book)

From: Brian Thornton (
Date: 22 Nov 2008

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    Sorry that I'm coming back to this one late, but I've been busy. Read on, if you care to.

    It would seem that in addition to sparking discussion (my intent) I also pricked Gonzalo into getting a bit personal in his response ("obsessive nitpicking"). That was not my intent.

    I like discussing these sorts of things and was hoping for exactly the sort of response I got here, with folks chiming and disagreeing with me (and with each other) all over the place. Let me take a moment and as dispassionately as possible address Gonzalo's response, though.

    On Mon, Nov 10, 2008 at 9:19 AM, Gonzalo Baeza <> wrote:

    >I tend to agree with Jacques' definition of noir rather than yours,
    >which strikes me as obsessive nitpicking.

    Insisting that there is a difference between the writing of authors as disparate as Thompson and Goodis (or Hammett and Chandler) is no more
    "obsessive nitpicking" than saying that Hemingway and Fitzgerald were very different (if roughly contemporary) authors. They were, and it's not.

    And according to your somewhat looser definition of "noir," literary works from THE ILIAD to HAMLET to THE AGE OF INNOCENCE to LOLITA would be considered "noir." That's too broad-of-a-brush-stroke for my tastes.

    The original point I was trying to make is that reviewers (paid and unpaid) can be lazy and inexact in trying to draw comparisons with other authors while writing on deadline. For the layperson who might never have read Goodis or Thompson (but might have heard OF them) this can tend to be misleading.

    THAT was my point, and it stands.

    > I did say criminality was secondary. What I didn't say is that it was
    absent from the book.

    Then it's really more of an "existentially bleak novel with crime plot elements," from the sound of it,

    > In many of Scott Wolven's stories crime is a secondary element and yet I
    think he's as noir as they come. > His collection of short stories, Controlled Burn, is probably the best one I've read so far this year.

    Never read him.

    > Likewise, the best noir novel I've read this year is Crazy Streak by John
    Gilmore and criminality is also secondary to its story.

    If crime in its myriad and disparate forms is "secondary," then it's not, in the truest sense, "noir."

    > I guess to me noir is more of a sensibility, a style, or an outlook
    instead of a mere collection of plot ingredients that must go into a given title so it can be stocked in the correct bookshelf.

    I never claimed it was a "mere collection of plot ingredients" that must be checked off in order to fit the recipe.

    But saying that it is "more of a sensibility, a style, or an outlook" renders the notion of "noir" and what does/does not constitute it so opaque, so bathetic, that according to your argument, nearly any work of fiction that is downbeat and depressing could be constituted as "noir," and that simply won't wash.

    Take THE BELL JAR, for instance. There's crime (attempted suicide) in it, but it's largely secondary (except when one stops to consider the author's obsession with death) to the grim, downbeat, life-sucks-I-hate-myself-these-could-be-the-lyrics-to-either-a-Cure-or-Depeche-Mode-song storyline.

    So there you have it: Sylvia Plath; a noir everywoman. Move over Highsmith!

    Or not.


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