RARA-AVIS: Nag, Nag, Nag Noir

From: Kevin Burton Smith (kvnsmith@sbcglobal.net)
Date: 22 Jul 2009

  • Next message: Allan Guthrie: "Re: RARA-AVIS: Nag, Nag, Nag Noir"

    What do you folks think?

    Is what is being marketed as noir these days the same as it ever was?

    Am I only imagining it's generally darker than it used to be? Meaner, perhaps, or at least more graphic?

    I had written:

    >> "When we stopped getting drawn into the protagonists' plights and
    >> realized only a falling beam separated them from us and started
    >> putting ourselves above these characters, laughing at how much they
    >> were being hurt and fucked."

    and Mark wrote:

    > Are we back to that again? Have you really become the old fart you
    > try to inoculate yourself against in your opening? Boo hoo, nothing
    > is as good as the old days? Boo hoo, the Beatles are gone. Boo hoo,
    > there are no more James M Cains. Bullshit.

    The Beatles are gone? It's about time phony Beatlemaina finally bit the dust.

    But James M. Cain? That train left the station while Cain was still alive. Some of his latter stuff was pretty weak.

    > My problems with your recycled set of global dismissals:
    > First of all, you are misrepresenting older noir. There was a lot of
    > crap there, and there was a lot of sadistic stuff there, too, even
    > sadistic stuff we were supposed to laugh/cheer at: "It was easy!"
    > Just add cackle. And Fred just gave a nice little list of racist,
    > misogynistic and homophobic snippets from classic noir.

    Ah, yes, the famous lace panties speech. But all those examples cited were from books where the characters mattered. What I'm disappointed in is that characters in some recent "noir" seem to matter less these days than shock and awe. (And PLEASE notice I said "some.")

    Yes, I know it's not a new phenomenon. But it just seems more prevalent to me. Then again, I don't have the money and time to deliberately track down bad books from the past, especially since new bad ones are coming over the transom every day.

    Whether the characters are racist, misogynistic, homophobic or whatever doesn't bother me as much as whether I find them credible. Speaking for myself, I don't want lace panties or some sort of gratuitous political correctness, but I do want human beings in the stories to be recognizable as human beings; as more than mere plot constructs or cartoon stick figures whose verisimilitude depends on more than how many times they say "fuck" in a sentence.

    > As we grow older, many of us, apparently you, have the tendency to
    > cling onto, remember and reread the best of the old and forget the
    > rest, reduce that best to the norm, not the cream.

    Uh, no. I'll be the first to point out (and have often) that a lot of sacred cows on this list were actually pretty crappy. And definitely over-rated, even if they're now considered just swell by the tragically hip. And there's some new stuff I really love, whether it's considered cool or not.

    We can't all be Peter Pans, I guess. Eternally young, always on the cutting edge, living in a Neverland of Cool. Boo hoo hoo.

    Sorry, I got over that hump in my teens... but thanks for the lecture on aging,.

    > You depict current noir as all one thing.

    Nope. But it's a nice straw argument.

    > Even if you disliked one recent book you've read, I still haven't
    > seen you give any evidence it represents all of recent noir. Even if
    > you can find other books that add laughs to their violence, and I
    > agree they are out there, it still doesn't mean they represent all
    > of recent noir, even all of a single author's output.

    I never said all new noir is inferior to all old noir. I simply lament that there seems to be an increase in the type that plays violence and tragedy for yucks, with very little connection to characters that are recognizable as human. Cynicism and cheap laughs are easy; writing real characters is hard.

    It doesn't help that "noir" as a term has become so devalued that everything someone likes on this list is instantly "something-noir." Or that the moment something is slammed for its excesses, a parody flag is thrown down.

    > For example (you remember those, right, examples to support your
    > points? any reader of crime fiction should know evidence is needed
    > to convict), Bruen can go over the top to make you laugh, or he can
    > go over the top to make you cringe, sometimes both at once. And even
    > when there is humor, it does not mean there is no connection to the
    > human condition.

    Is that what's got you so riled? That you think I'm attacking Ken? Sorry, he's one of my favourite writers. And his characters are almost always unbearably human.

    A lot of the books I've read are not the relatively mainstream (or sniffing around the edges of mainstream) writers and books you're defending. A lot of them are from really small presses and vanity presses, sent to me (often unsolicited) to review. And I'm still getting occasional stories submitted directly to me for THRILLING DETECTIVE, even though they're supposed to go to Gerald first.

    In the last few years, what was a trickle has become a slow but growing stream of meanspiritedness, all rubber-stamped with the "noir" label (their words, not mine), with little in the way of anything coming even close to the "human condition." Non-existent plots, laughable logic, cruelty instead of viable characters. I don't generally trash these books; I just give up on them.

    Mario's suggested collapse of society might be the reason I'm seeing more of this stuff, but I think it's technology itself that's helped spark it. It's not that there's more of these guys, but with the internet and word processing and a zillion ways to get stuff out there, more and more of them are demanding to be heard. So all these guys (and they're overwhelmingly male) no longer have to hide in their basements and garrets; now they can all claim to be writers.

    And since most of them aren't going to be snapped up by big name (or even small name) publishers and bookstores, they look for other ways to get the word out. Including through me.

    But I don't think I should slag a book by name if I don't give it a fair shot, reading it through to its conclusion. That seems dishonest to me.

    * * * *

    Maybe I'm misreading this stuff. Maybe it really doesn't represent a trend, and I've just been dealt a really bad hand of books these days. Maybe this stuff was always out there, always falling between the cracks. But other people seem to think I'm not imagining what I see as a trend -- they've seen it themselves. Ed Gorman wanted me to run for president, of all things.

    And other people get their panties all twisted defending it. Even though it doesn't exist.

    THE DISCONNECTED MAN was better than most of these, but it's also emblematic of much of what I think I've seen in increasing amounts. So it was a perfect opportunity to add to an on-going thread that's been a part of this list since almost Day One. You want me to hold these suckers up to the spotlight to prove they exist; others think it would be unfair to do so. (But ironically have no hesitation attacking anyone higher up on the food chain -- by name -- without having read the book).

    > Lots of extreme violence, even violence as black humor meant to
    > provoke laughter, in Huston's Caught Stealing, but the reader still
    > feels for Hank Thompson and his plight.

    Charlie's stuff proves your point about not all current noir, even some of the more out there stuff, being crap. But I'm coming across a lot of stuff that is just excessive and certainly not up to Charlie's standards. Or Ken's or Duane's or Scott Wolven's or Victor Gischler's or Neil Anthony Smith's or whomever. There IS good stuff out there. Even some good, excessive stuff that would probably have fallen through the cracks -- or never been published -- in the old days.

    But then there's the other stuff...

    Assuming it exists and I'm not imagining it, are we supposed to laugh or cry at this stuff? Some people think I'm taking it all too seriously; other people get upset if I don't take it seriously enough. One guy claims his stuff is supposed to be funny; another guy gets upset if I suggest his stuff is funny. And some guys can't even remember if the books they're recommending are supposed to be funny or not.

    > You are ignoring all of the current noir that does not fit your
    > dismissal.

    Well, d'uh. Maybe because I'm not dismissing all current noir?

    > What about Jason Starr's books?

    I like most of them. I like his severely flawed characters, and the way that he makes them credible even when they're complete morons and even Grade-A assholes. Who usually get what they deserve. Although usually in unexpected ways.

    But once again, my gripe isn't with all new stuff. It's with all the new stuff I don't think is particularly well-written.

    > What about Dave Zeltersman's? For all of your ridicule of his jacket
    > photo, have you read what's inside the cover? because none of the
    > books I've read of his are anything like what you are pumping up to
    > dismiss.

    I've never said anything about SMALL CRIMES on this list for obvious reasons.

    The only reason I originally found out Dave even had a publicity shot of him posing with a pool cue is because a discussion came up somewhere else on props often used for "tough guy" writers' photos, and his photo was mentioned by someone, in conjunction with pool cues. Other popular items used in hard-boiled fiction include guns, fedoras, trenchcoats, dead animals, leather jackets and alcohol.

    The good news is that so far I've got a monopoly on bleary-eyed, wrinkly turtle faces,.

    > They are straight up noir, not comedy, and they don't use over the
    > top violence for humor. They are all about the human condition.

    Well, we already knew he's a very very serious guy.

    > And what about Charles Willeford? How does his treatment of violence
    > not fit into your dimissal? He can be very violent and very funny at
    > it. And many (most?) of his protagonists can be sadistic pricks. Do
    > his books lack the human condition?

    Not the ones I've read. I particularly enjoyed the Hoke series. Missing dentures strike me as infinitely human.

    > Going to dismiss them, too? What about Joe Lansdale? Lots of dark,
    > bleak humor there. Is he gone?

    Not unless he's a ghost. I like Joe Lansdale a lot, particularly his Hap and Leonard stuff. Although I'm not sure I'd peg them all as noir. Sometimes they're just good pulpy action thrillers. But mostly they just ARE. Lansdale seems far less concerned with labels than some of his contemporaries. He just bounces all over the place. Good writers can do that.

    Look, Mark, I'm not sure why you're so pissed off. You seem to think this stuff exists. I certainly think it exists. We may disagree on how much of it is out there, or how representative it is of current writing trends, or even if it's relevant or not, but why are you so insistent on me providing the name, rank and serial number of those who I find wanting?

    So you can sit back and watch the fireworks?

    > We get it, Kevin, you didn't like Disassembled Man. It's time to
    > read another new book.

    I am. Several at a time. I just didn't realize I had to report back to you every time I did, professor. But I assure you that when I do comment on a specific book, I'll read it first.

    Kevin Burton Smith

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