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.
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.