Neo-Noir Gets Controversial

Over the weekend a nice little teapot tempest brewed in several places, including the RARA-AVIS mailing list and the Rap Sheet blog. It began when Kevin Burton Smith editorialized on what he termed “disturbing trends” in the current spate of what’s being termed neo-noir:

In the original noirs, the main characters were usually just

more-or-less regular joes: migrant workers, insurance salesmen,

professors, news hawks, coffee-shop waitresses, B-girls, cut-rate

private eyes, mildly bent cops, low-level crooks. The sort of people

you’d meet in a bar or on the street. Or getting off a hay wagon. Just

regular schmucks, with more-or-less normal levels of intelligence. And

their fall was presented as tragedy, with one bad decision, one moment

of weakness, one fatal flaw serving as the catalyst that ignites a

world of hurt.

Nowadays, though, the characters are more often

big-shot celebrities, serial killers, globe-trotting hit men, cannibal

dope fiends and the like–over-the-top sociopathic cartoons who seem to

exist mostly in fiction. And these guys are usually criminally

clueless. These books aren’t presented as morality plays, but as

clusterfucks of stupidity and venality. These characters come

pre-doomed and pre-damned; dumbshits who seem compelled to make one

obviously bad decision after another–the sort of stupid choices that

owe more to plot machinations than anything else.

What happens

to them isn’t some slow, inevitable tragic fall from grace into the

darkness of the abyss, but more a turned-to-11 amplification of

atrocities and bad luck, betrayals and misunderstandings and

coincidences that, again, exist only in fiction.

Smith’s tack is deliberately provocative, and taken on its most general terms, there’s much to agree with. The number of nodding heads included Ed Gorman, who said that “too much of it is parodistic in nature, feeding on what came

before rather than extending and enhancing it, a literary exercise that

is essentially black comedy.”

The problem, as I and others pointed out in the Rap Sheet backblog string, is the lack of examples in Smith’s post. Steve Mosby best encapsulated the criticism with his comment:

Since everyone would agree that gratuitous violence is wrong – by

definition – the only real point I can see is that ‘new’ noir misses

the point of ‘old’ noir. But it’s impossible to discuss without

examples, as it seems to be a marketing objection more than anything?

Whether the authors you’re talking about would describe themselves as

noir or have been marketed as noir is surely pretty crucial, otherwise

you’re just saying you’re fed up with violence in books in general, and

there’s no need to talk about noir at all.

And Allan Guthrie, whose novel HARD MAN I cited right around the time Eddie Muller criticized it for many of the points Smith made (and much as I liked the book from a black comic standpoint, I did wonder if I would have enjoyed it even more had I been 100% invested in the characters as human beings instead of pieces of a literary chess board) went back in time for greater context:

It’s easy to say that extreme violence in fiction is a current

trend but don’t you think critics were saying that in the late

20s/early 30s in reaction to THE BASTARD, RED HARVEST, FAST ONE, etc.,

or THEY DON’T DANCE much in 1940, or KISS TOMORROW GOODBYE later in the

decade, or in response to some of Wade Miller (I’m thinking of the

excruciating torture scene in GUILTY BYSTANDER) and Jim Thompson’s work

in the 50s, or Jack Ehrlich in the 60s and 70s (try BLOODY VENGEANCE)?

Spillane wasn’t writing disturbingly violent books?

And really, Guthrie nails it. Humanity and emotion is independent of time; claims of gratuitous violence  have been made for decades. And this argument will probably be raging a good 50 years from now, if not even later into the future.