Friday, June 29, 2007

Neo-nah ...

I dunno.

After reading a spate of recent books by some of the more highly touted (or is that highly tooted?) practitioners of the “new noir,” I’ve noticed something.

Not in all of them, mind you, but in enough of them to be disturbed by what seems to be a developing trend. I hope not. Maybe I just hit a bad string of books (and no, I don’t want to name them). But ...

Many of these books have increasingly little to do with the classic noir films and novels their authors all claim to admire and adore so much (but may never have actually read).

If the original noirs were usually about normal, or at least identifiable characters being drawn into the darkness, that’s an era that is long gone. So many of the recent noir novels I’ve read are populated by amoral sociopaths who are already plenty dark.

Like, really, really, dark.

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.

Certainly, things are more graphic and there’s far more obscene language, violence, and sex in these new books than in the old noirs, which is to be expected, I guess. But so much of it just seems strained and self-conscious; like a bunch of little boys trying to out-do each other. These neo-noirs aren’t presented as tragedy at all, but as comedy of the cruelest sort, the “grown-up” equivalent of slipping a frog down a girl’s back.

And what’s with all the torture and mutilation going on? Is Dick Cheney secretly moonlighting as an acquisitions editor?

Chainsaws! Woodchippers! Crucifixion!

Like, “You fed a guy’s testicles into a Waring blender? Fine, I’ll do that, too, but I’ll toss in some Coors Light and then make my guy drink it! And then gerbil him to death!”

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?”

The old noir characters, whatever their flaws, had souls of some sort. Hell, the books themselves had soul, and you got the sense that the authors--and readers--cared about these characters on at least some level. The characters who inhabit this cynical new breed of noir novels too often are unlikable two-dimensional cardboard cutouts who exist only in order that they can be put through their paces by an author with one hand down his (or her) pants for the edification of their like-minded buddies.

All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more like pornography than noir, at least to me.

Makes me wonder who’s getting off on it.

(Cross-posted from The Thrilling Detective Blog.)

31 comments:

Peter said...

That's a hell of a fine post. Maybe it's best to avoid neo-, post- or alternative anything. But some examples would be nice as a basis for discussion. Type them in pig Latin, if you'd like, to conceal their identities.
===================
Detectives Beyond Borders
"Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"
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whiteskwirl said...

I agree, give some examples. There's nothing wrong with naming names. This is criticism. Surely writers who write so tough can take a little of it, right?

Sarah Weinman said...

Kevin, I see where you're coming from, but without examples this post doesn't carry the same weight it should. I realize you want to make a general statement and leave the authors out of it but instead I'm left wondering who you're referring to and I'm not sure that really makes things better in the end.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Sigh...

Like I don't have enough people pissed off at me already?

Why don't YOU suggest some names that you think fit those shoes?

Charles Ardai said...

Thanks for having your say, Kevin: I couldn't agree with you more. And this is coming from someone who reads not only about 100 published crime novels a year but about 1000 unpublished ones -- and you'd better believe that people who write the sort of stuff you're describing send it to Hard Case Crime (entirely missing the point that we're looking for books that feel like Cain and Chandler, not the modern cut-off-their-kneecaps-for-laughs variety of the form).

In fairness, the issue's not unique to noir -- look at what's happened to horror movies, which now feature the subtle emotional stylings of "Hostel 2" and "The Hills Have Eyes 2" and "Saw 2." And it's not like comedies have become less coarse since the days of Preston Sturges.

But I certainly agree that I'm getting a bit tired of seeing authors try to top each other with the extremes of violence and mayhem they can cram onto a page. When I get a query letter that says something like (and this is an actual quote from a query I got on June 15), "I tried to push the boundaries of visceral horror and shocking violence," I politely but firmly and without hesitation say no.

Kevin Wignall said...

Kevin, I do think this is a very intriguing post, and perhaps the way around forcing you to give examples if for authors to "out" themselves.

I fall into some of your categories. My work has been described as noir, I've written a loose trilogy of books about hitmen, all of whom are damaged from the outset. Naturally, I hope I don't include stupid or two-dimnesional characters, I certainly don't dislike the characters I write about and I don't think I use egregious violence. To the extent that my work is dark it's because it deals with people on the edge making decisions that aren't always easy.

The key point, though, and I'm sure it applies to some of the books you're referring to, is that I've never described my work as noir - that description has always come from others. So in some cases, at least, perhaps the authors are exploring a valid sub-genre of their own (and like you, it's not one that really appeals to me as a reader) and are unwittingly being given a label, the misappropriation of which is always likely to upset the purists.

Gerald So said...

Along the lines of Kevin Wignall's comment, I think noir as a label has been overused. My rough understanding of the term noir is that it involves a bleak atmosphere populated by tragically flawed characters. Now look at Akashic's Noir anthology series (which I've enjoyed on the whole). I wouldn't describe all the stories as noir, particularly not Paul Levine's "Solomon and Lord Drop Anchor" in MIAMI NOIR. I'm a big fan of Levine's work and he did "dark" well for the Solomon vs. Lord book KILL ALL THE LAWYERS, but the aforementioned story wasn't very dark--not as dark as Christine Kling's MIAMI NOIR story, in which a girl takes revenge after being repeatedly raped by her father.

whiteskwirl said...

Asking others to provide your examples is a cop out. If you're going to write an essay (and call it a post if you like, but it's still an essay), the most important rule is to back up your claims.

I'm guessing one of your examples might be Ken Bruen's Cross. I believe there is crucifixion in that, though I haven't read it.

I enjoyed this post, but seriously, if you're going to spout off about something, at least have the balls to back it up.

Sarah Weinman said...

"Why don't YOU suggest some names that you think fit those shoes?"

Because I didn't write this post, and if I had, I would not have done so in the same way.

However, since I suspect one of the books you're alluding to is HARD MAN by Al Guthrie, it owes a lot more to the deliberately over-the-top Jacobean dramas than to film noir. Which is probably why I laughed my ass off for much of that book because it's *supposed* to be, if not parodistic in nature, at least self-referential. But I'm also happy to be wrong; at least in putting this out there I can make the book a topic of discussion. You opted for a semi-polemic and that closes more doors.

And my "you gotta back shit up" mood is due to just about being done with my next LA Times column, which would be impossible to write without citing any examples.

GB said...

The violence in the work of some of the classic authors like Thompson or Dan Marlowe never seems gratuitous or over the top in the manner of so many contemporary noir writers who think an exploding head and a blood-splattered windshield is the modern-day equivalent of a cartoon character slipping on a banana peel. One culprit behind this trend, in my opinion, is none other than Quentin Tarantino. Just as you say that many of the new novels are books based on other books instead of life, Tarantino's films mymic his predecessors' work behind a faux ironic smirk instead of expressing a genuine outlook on life.

His influence on the rest of popular culture (from the ever more gross films of people like Eli Roth to many of the recent noir novels) is likewise tangible. The characters in these neo-noirs usually conform to the stereotype we have of what a hitman or a tough guy is supposed to be like -ruthless, insensitive, sadistic - even if they're nothing but walking punchlines. It is clear to me that many of these writers have never experienced anything even remotely close to violence in their lives. This is why their fake and sadistic depiction of it in their works is more like a childish enjoyment of the forbidden rather than any meaningful statement. I believe this reliance on the gross also operates as a distraction from their obvious lack of storytelling skills. This is particularly evident in the new crop of novels where it is mandatory to include an action scene on every single page of their three-page chapters.

whiteskwirl said...

In Tarantino's defense, though, he does openly admit his influences and he also has said that he does this for fun. I saw an interview with him and the interviewer asked him why he made such violent stuff and he said because it's fun. So yes, Tarantino borrows from others, but he also admits it and isn't trying to be anything more.

Dave Zeltserman said...

GB: I agree completely about Tarantino's influence on today's crime fiction (and made the same point over on RARA AVIS months ago). Guy Richie's influence is also pretty obvious in some of the crime fiction I'm seeing coming out of the UK. Thompson's violence was gut wrenching, but never gratuitous. Dan Marlowe--when he wasn't writing his soft porn men's adventure books also never came across as gratuitous--at least with his violence.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

So cruxifiction is the hot new trend in "noir"?

Or simply in Jacobean parodies?

Gosh, I think I rest my case.

whiteskwirl said...

What case? You've yet to sat anything credible.

whiteskwirl said...

edit: You've yet to say anything credible.

stevemosby said...

Kevin, I do think you should have the courage of your convictions and name books, otherwise I don't see what case you're making, never mind resting.

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.

Hard Man said...

Kevin,

I don't know if you are talking about Hard Man, but I've no problems at all with you mentioning it if so. The novel's a mix of Jacobean revenge drama, Grand Guignol, Theatre Of The Absurd, pulp horror, Monty Python and probably a lot else. I wouldn't describe it as noir, though. Unless I was in a hurry.

Juri said...

I'd like to hear some names, too, just to be able to avoid those books. (If I were to agree with you which has happened one or two times during these ten years of our Rara-Avis based acquaintance).

Jason Starr is at least one who really does tragedies, without or with minimal violence. And he's really noir, not neo-noir, not ultrahardboiled, or whatever. I've yet to read CROSS or THE HARD MAN, but I'm looking forward to them.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, the sweet irony of someone who hides behind a silly cyber-nom accusing me of having no balls.

I commented on what I feared was a developing trend, signed my own name, and provided my own e-mail address. But the majority of responses I've received, both publicly and privately, from writers, publishers and serious readers have all been more or less in agreement with me. Heck, Ed Gorman wants me to run for president.

As for my "copping out," anyone who's ever read my posts (or my essays and reviews) over the years knows I have never had a problem voicing unpopular opinions or naming names when warranted. I've stuck my neck out countless times -- on line or in person -- and I've got the figurative scars to prove it.

The intent of my post was to simply comment on what I saw as an emerging and rather disturbing trend -- not to name names and start a pissing contest for the edification and amusement of a few bored rubberneckers hoping for a good, flame-filled brouhaha.

And for the record, I used cruxifiction as an deliberately outrageous, over-the-top example of where I saw the trend possibly leading, having no idea both Ken Bruen and Al Guthrie had recently written books featuring it. That's a twist I hadn't foreseen.

At least nobody's come forward yet to cite a current crime novel that boasts somebody being gerbilled to death.

Yet.

whiteskwirl said...

My name is John Dishon if that makes you feel better, not that my name has any bearing on anything. But I guess you needed some way to skirt the issue.

And that issue is that you didn't back up your claims. You have the right to do this and I have the right to call you out on it, and I am not the only one to do so. Steve Mosby said the same thing I did, only in more polite terms.

You say that most who have responded have been in agreement with you, but again you're being vague. I have no reason not to believe you though, and it doesn't matter because the issue is not whether people agree with what you say or not. The point is your post carries no weight because you didn't back up your claims.

Instead of asking others to give evidence for you, you could have just said that this was a rant, not meant to be taken as serious criticism. Which would be just fine. If it is supposed to be taken seriously then you need give evidence to support your opinions. Which you have yet to do.

You may not have copped out before, but you did this time and you are still doing it. If you're sticking your neck out this time then you are doing it behind an iron shield.

It's actually interesting that you used crucifixion without knowing it had been used. If Cross and Hard Man were not examples you didn't mention, then does that mean that you were basing your claims on nothing at all? Because it was never made clear in your post that these were outrageous predictions. Then again, no one here said that Hard Man contained crucifixion, so you may just be lying.

And if you do name names when warranted, then why is it you don't think that naming names is warranted in this case? When is it warranted?

Anyway, whatever irony my comment may have had has no bearing on whether it is true or not. And I stand by it.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Me? Serious criticism?

If I were presenting this as piece of formal, serious criticism -- or one that I was being paid for, why yes of course I would provide examples. And I'd drop so many names even Sarah would be envious.

But this was what I thought was obviously an off-the-top-of-my head piece (I did refer to it as a "post," after all), even if it was one that evidently got a lot of people talking. Evidently I touched a nerve.

And if you thought cruxifiction or death by gerbil were not deliberately wild exaggerations, well, that sort of illustrates my point about what "noir"" has come to mean in recent years.

Although it is interesting to see writers, both here and on Rara-Avis (where it first appeared) responding to my post -- and the subsequent fallout -- by denying they're noir writers at all, really.

Despite what their publishers and publicists -- and in some cases they themselves -- may have said.

Don't worry, though, John -- if I come across a some hot new "noir" book that features death by gerbil, I promise I'll let you know right away.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Me? Serious criticism?

If I were presenting this as piece of formal, serious criticism -- or one that I was being paid for, why yes of course I would provide examples. And I'd drop so many names even Sarah would be envious.

But this was what I thought was obviously an off-the-top-of-my head piece (I did refer to it as a "post," after all), even if it was one that evidently got a lot of people talking. Evidently I touched a nerve.

And if you thought cruxifiction or death by gerbil were not deliberately wild exaggerations, well, that sort of illustrates my point about what "noir"" has come to mean in recent years.

Although it is interesting to see writers, both here and on Rara-Avis (where it first appeared) responding to my post -- and the subsequent fallout -- by denying they're noir writers at all, really.

Despite what their publishers and publicists -- and in some cases they themselves -- may have said.

Don't worry, though, John -- if I come across a some hot new "noir" book that features death by gerbil, I promise I'll let you know right away.

Hard Man said...

"And if you thought cruxifiction or death by gerbil were not deliberately wild exaggerations, well, that sort of illustrates my point about what "noir"" has come to mean in recent years."

Kevin, I'm not sure if Boris Starling's MESSIAH counts as 'recent years'? First published in 1999, I think. Later became a series on terrestrial TV in the UK. There's a big crucifixion scene in the book.

Derek Raymond, generally regarded as the founder of English noir, was writing extremely bloodthirsty and disturbing books long before that. I WAS DORA SUAREZ, 1990, notoriously made one editor (Dan Franklin) throw up all over his desk. That book includes what Hugo Barnacle called a 'sickening gerbil racket,' incidentally. Many of the details for the book were provided from police records.

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?

Al

whiteskwirl said...

"Don't worry, though, John -- if I come across a some hot new "noir" book that features death by gerbil, I promise I'll let you know right away."---I don't know why you think I have an interest in gerbils, or that I'm interested in over the top violence. It's rather childish how off-topic that is.

Whether or not I think crucifixion is an exaggeration or not is beside the point. The point was you didn't make it clear that it was an exaggeration in your post.

But thank you for clarifying what this post was. I'll no longer bring up your lack of evidence now that I know this post is not to be taken seriously.

And kudos to Al Guthrie for giving examples.

David Thayer said...

Kevin,
You woke me from the summer doldrums, thanks. Two of the commenters, Charles Ardai and Kevin Wignall, wrote books I loved, LITTLE GIRL LOST and FOR THE DOGS, respectively. I think what sets them apart from the head banging crowd, aside from talent, is the ability to evoke human need in the story's mix. LITTLE GIRL LOST is romantic, the tough guy is more innocent than the girl and FOR THE DOGS ends on a lonely melancholic note.

Kevin R. Einarson said...

Kevin,

There are a number of books out there that are more violent than I care for but that is what is in vogue at the moment. (or at least perceived to be)
But here is the most important detail that so often people ignore. If you don't like it, don't buy it. Books are published on a profit model. If too few people buy the author's book, the author disappears.

Noir was a visual style that movies in a certain era demonstrated, so by definition there is no such thing as a noir book. The more correct term would be Hard Boiled.

The term "Noir" migrated to the literary world because it reflected the some of the same SUBJECT matter has created the confusion. When the works of Hammett, Chandler and Spillane first appeared, they were decried using the same rhetoric that is being used here.

Casting longing looks backward and recounting better days through the today's eyes is, in many ways, dishonest. Time and societal changes has given their work respect. Who is to say the same authors being referred to here will not be considered the new masters of the genre in twenty years from now.

If we were having this conversation back then, I suspect I would be hearing cries about how the masters such as Christie would be horrified to see how crime fiction has taken such a dark turn.

Perhaps the greatest concern I have with this post is that it is little more than a mean-spirited tirade that is only garnering discussion because of where it was posted.

Sandra Ruttan said...

"All the meanness and carnage of these soulless wallows comes off more like pornography than noir, at least to me."

Pornography:

#1. Films, magazines, writings, photographs, or other materials that are sexually explicit and intended to cause sexual arousal

#2. The production or sale of sexually explicit films, magazines or other materials.

There's an enormous leap here that's inferring sexual gratification from the violence. Terms without clarification are being thrown around as though they're the new catchphrase of the day (oh, and aren't we cool for using terms like 'torture porn', which I've seen used more inappropriately in the last week than even the now-meaningless term noir).

The problem with not citing examples in this case is that it leaves the application wide open to individual interpretation. Because a book has someone crucified in it, does it automatically count as being gratuitous? Shame on The Bible - it even records more than one.

An over-simplification intended to do one thing: Show that the specifics of the content alone aren't enough. Just who is it that's upping the ante and deliberately making each book more violent? And who are we to say that's what any author is setting out to do deliberately? We can say it reads like it to us, but to another it might not.

I'll get bold, I'll use an example in another category. Vicki Hendricks, Cruel Poetry. Sex, sex and - oh gosh golly gee - more sex. Far more erotica than anything else, in my opinion. Story subverted for yet more sex. I can handle a bit of sex with my story, but this (to me) had a bit of story with a lot of sex and I just don't want to read that. And yet others are praising it to the stars. Me? I can see people getting off on it more than getting off on Hard Man.

Tomato, tomahto. I can certainly say some books are too violent for my tastes. That does not mean all of those books are examples of people exploiting violence just to shock.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Of course not all books featuring sex or violence are meant to exploit. I never said that.

But some of them, particulalry lately, have so very little else to offer you have to wonder sometimes.

Anyhow, let's clear one thing up. I never said anybody didn't have the right to write or sell whatever the hell they want. Or that those of you so up in arms about my post don't have the same god-given right to enjoy your precious little books.

Read all the torture and sexual mutilation and crucixion and orgasm-and-death-by-gerbil scenes you guys want. You evidently have far more to choose from than I even suspected. Enjoy yourselves.

But don't call it noir.

Call it post-Jacobean parody, as Al calls his own HARD MAN, or pulp-horror or uber-pulp or even hard-boiled torture-porn if you want, but don't go around calling it noir. It isn't.

The classic noir writers used character development and plot to drive their stories, and yes, there was plenty of sex and violence that, yes, were probably considered shocking for their times, but those scenes of sex and violence served the stories, a natural development of the often nasty dark stories of the damned and doomed the writers were trying to tell; it wasn't there INSTEAD of a story.

Nobody ever said noir was pretty; but just because some book's really really ugly doesn't make it noir.

Making an editor (or a reader) puke should not be a noir writer's primary goal.

And black humour only works if it's actually funny.

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

This whole argument drives me nuts.

First, noir as it was had it roots in a different time, people were different, moods were different as was the musci and sports and everyhting else. Why would't a newer noir involve a different kind of people. The people in those original noir stories don't exist today. Music is more extreme, sporsts are more extreme and people are more aware and better informed.


Second, I don't know of any authros turning in a book and saying to an editor or publisher "here's a noir book I wrote". Those labels, which I hate because they are so often mis used, are usually given out by marketing people or editors or someone in publishing who feels the need to pigeon hole a work in order to sell it.

Complaining about author X's book saying it's not noir is silly, because the truth is they probably didn't set out to write a noir book, and even if they did, they probably didn't label it as such.

Most of what you are referring to I simply think of as Dark Crime Fiction.

Your frustration should be targeted at the publishers, not the authors.

Kevin Burton Smith said...

Actually, it's been amusing to see some authors scramble away from the "noir' tag in the wake of this current thread.

Not that most of them didn't seem to mind riding the coattails of it in the past -- or wrapping themselves in it -- when it was commercially convenient.

I'd ask what happened to the testicles of these poor helpless scribes, but given their apparent affection for relating mutilation and torture in all its graphic glory, I'm not sure I want to hear.

Dating said...

Actually, it's been amusing to see some authors scramble away from the "noir' tag in the wake of this current thread.