I’ve seen a few other writers offering their opinions up on this subject recently, and I thought it was time for me, as an up-and-coming noir writer, to voice my own thoughts and opinions on what constitutes noir fiction. So here it goes. Noir.
The main debate on noir seems to often revolve around one major distinction: Is noir a style, or a genre? As much as I’d like to take the easy way out on this line of thinking by saying it’s both (and it is, to some definitions), for me noir is very much a style, one which is applicable across genres. Good noir writing lives in darkness. It’s a vibe, a feeling that dark things are happening to dark people, even if we don’t know the level of darkness they’re capable of. Yet.
To steal and re-appropriate a phrase from Hunter Thompson, noir stories are songs of the doomed. Stories of losers getting lost. But also of redemption, resolve, and resolution. Noir stories find a speck of light in the darkness, and they follow that light with reckless haste until it leads either to salvation or damnation. They might happen at the dive bar down the street, or the intersection of Mars and Venus. Wherever there are people being people (or animals being people, for that matter), there will always be the potential for noir stories.
Noir stories drop helpless things into hot grease and tell them, “Go ahead, swim for it…if you dare.” Noir stories take feckless men and make them fight. Noir stories can show you someone you hate, then show you how to love them, then crush them before your loving eyes. Noir stories are the guy whose wife left him destitute, but also the woman who left, the reasons she left, and the reasons she might have stayed. And they are everything, EVERYTHING, in between those two places, too.
Noir characters are, in the words of Charlie Murphy, “Habitual line-steppers.” Readers meet them when they’ve crossed one line too many, and have no way back. They are the doomed, the dying, the losers and the lost. But they can also be saved. Sometimes. More often they are the ones who never had a chance, but also the ones who had too many chances. Noir characters are people we’d love to hate if we didn’t love to love them first.
Noir writers are stylists. Whether pulp, hard-boiled or anything else, good noir is all about voice, all about style, and ALL about dialogue. Noir is the hapless man who gives a shit deep inside. Noir is the psychopath pretending to give a shit. Noir is the darkness inherent in being alive, whoever you are. It’s so powerful because every single one of us can identify with what it represents: hopelessness, helplessness, the inherent lack of fairness in life, and the resolve to thrash and gnash our teeth as we make our futile stand against these things.
I believe noir writing is poised for a major resurgence in popular culture. I believe that pulp can be prophetic, and that noir at it’s best is the pen-ultimate character study. It’s almost never about man as a hopeful being, and almost always about humankind mooring the tide against the darkness of inevitable death. No style has more potential to deal with the rawness of the human condition, and that is why I believe it should be read so much more. I’m doing my best to champion for that through my own writing, and I know a lot of other incredible writers who are doing the same.
At the end of the day the above definition is only noir as I see it, and perhaps this post is more a window into my soul as a writer than it could ever be into noir as a style or term. If so, I’m okay with that (even if I’m only debating myself with my words here), but I wanted to provide my readers and my contemporaries with that window, so that they can see and understand what it is that drives me to sit down in front of the computer and start typing every morning. I hope it drives them too, because the well is never empty with so much darkness on the horizon each day. In that sense I’m thankful for the darkness. It’s what makes most of us become who we really are.
“What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.”– Charles Bukowski.