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Truth in Advertising: The Deception of Noir

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Truth in Advertising: The Deception of Noir

One of the more interesting subdivisions of the writing world is the relationship between literary fiction and genre fiction (e.g., noir).  As a writer trying to straddle the two, if with a more sympathetic foot on the darker side of the street (or as Paul W. might say, with "one foot in the door, the other foot in the gutter...), I've discovered the presentation and promotion of both camps can be a bit deceptive. Kinda like Greenland vs. Iceland.

For those of you who are (like I) geographically challenged, that's Greenland on the left, the one covered with a fuckton of ice, looking about as hospitable as a summer's day on Hoth.  In one of the first examples of tourist duping, early settlers, attempting to lure workers to the snow-covered wasteland, came up with the idea of calling it"Greenland." (Ironically, Iceland [pictured on the right], is mostly green, but got saddled with the shittier island name.  Apparently only two names were left in the hat.)

I didn't start out intending to write one brand of fiction or the other.  In an early writing class I took after getting straight, the professor remarked that my voice betrayed a certain "hardboiled" edge.   Which I found remarkable.

"How weird!" I said.  "Because I read a lot of hardboiled authors."

Well, no shit, Joe.  That's how it works.  You are what you read (which is why, even though I haven't read the book in a few years, there is an undeniable Catcher in the Rye tone to my blog posts.  That's what you get when you read one goddamn book 6,432 times, ya phony bastards).

I soon learned that hardboiled/noir constitutes "genre," a five-letter dirty word in the writing world, and that if you wanted to be taken seriously, you needed to steer clear.  Fucking with genre is like fucking with venereal disease; you'll never shake its stigma.  I wanted to be taken seriously because I was still delusional enough to believe I'd have a legacy.  Seems crazy now, but I'd just gotten sober and my head was stuck pretty high in those pink clouds.  I was so much older than the other students, but with real world experience from which to mine; the (mostly self-imposed) standards were erected pretty goddamn high.

When I received an offer to study at Florida International University for my MFA, I found, by chance/luck/fate, that I'd ended up at a school deeply immersed in the mystery tradition, of which noir is a subset (or maybe it's the other way around). Department director Les Standiford's an accomplished mystery writer with several novels to his name, and Dennis Lehane (Mystic River) earned his Master's there. James W. Hall also taught in the program (not that he could pick me out of a line up of one), and my thesis advisor, Lynne Barrett, had spent a lot of time dissecting the inner-workings of mystery and suspense.  As a result, I started writing more noir and less literary fiction.  And I started having a lot more fun.  All the stodgy, overbearing themes and insufferable morality plays about sons who can't speak to their fathers over holiday dinner went out of the shattered bathroom window.  In its place were the wonderful criminals, the wounded and broken hearted, the morally bankrupt castoffs and fuck-ups who still try to do the right thing, even when all evidence points to the contrary.  Which made sense beyond just the fact that this is what I liked to read.  It's also the world I'd been living in for the past tent years.

This wouldn't even be worth remarking upon if there didn't exist such a chasm between the two schools.  I still write literary fiction, but I have to say, by and large, the purveyors of literary fiction tend to be pompous douches.  I know I am running the risk of over generalizing, and it's a big fucking field.  But I have been to one too many pretentious parties where "craft" is discussed as nauseum over plates of  over-rated cheeses.  I remember this one particular get-together at the AWP, a small gathering, where everyone (but me) had a fellowship, and they all wrote this brand of fiction, or poetry, all in the same uppity vein, and soon as you walked in the room, you felt drenched in the phoniness, the front of it all.  All one needs is a little validation to bring out their inner dick.  And, yeah, there was envy on my part, and I'm not saying they were bad people, and I'm certainly not saying they weren't good writers.  Still, little kindness or generosity emanated from that room.

Which is where I draw the biggest distinction between what separates the two camps, which ends up being fairly ironical.  Noir is a world populated by unsavory types doing unspeakable things, and its writers create hellish landscapes, where characters backstab, murder, and dismember (and not necessarily in that order), but in real life, the authors who write this stuff tend to be real sweethearts.

From David Corbett to Thuglit editor Todd "Big Daddy Thug" Robinson, to the good folks over at Shotgun Honey, the noir/hardboiled/mystery community has been nothing but generous and supportive.  Go to any one of the sites that house my noir shorts and look at the comment sections.  You won't find a remotely negative comment.  For any story.  Just all these hardasses taking the time out to religiously read one another's efforts and prop each other up.

It's funny.  When you think about literary fiction, the works upon which critical acclaim is heaped--let's take, say, Infinite Jest by lit fic darling David Foster Wallace--even if you actual read that and pretend to have enjoyed it, you can't exactly use words like "like."  It's an experience, a masterpiece, a whatthefuckever, but I tried reading that shit and it bored me senseless.  Maybe I'm not that bright. But I'll take Jim Thompson over Don DeLillo any day.

The truth is I like a lot of literary fiction, including DeLillo, whose White Noise mesmerized me.  For the first half.  Until I just sorta...lost...interest.  I didn't put it down, or rather not pick it back up, because it wasn't good.  I kinda forgot about it. Which never happens with Charles Willeford, or David Goodis, or Day Keene.  I think one of the reasons I didn't read much in high school was the books they assigned.  I know the guy has his fans, but I can't stand Dickens.  Every year, they tried to cram that whimsical crap down my throat.  And I wouldn't bite.  (When I was finally forced [in grad school] to read David Copperfield, I felt justified in my prejudice.  Fuck David Copperfield.  Guy finally gets to exact his revenge against his tormentor, and what's he do?  He slaps him.  Not punches.  Slaps.  What a fancy pants dandy.) High school English teachers don't assign Stephen King, who is a brilliant, funny, amazing writer.  I'm not going to say he's better or worse than whomever, but reading King is something you enjoy, whereas so much of literary fiction feels like work.

No point in apologizing, really.  In the end, it's a matter of taste, I suppose.  Given my druthers, I'd prefer not to use expression like "given my druthers"; I prefer the cheap and lurid.  I like the lowlife.  I want the visceral grittiness of pulp, to share in the bond among the lowest common denominator.  I feel like I am among my own kind there.  And if you can get past the tattoos and criminal record, you'll find that the people are really nice. Plus I like books that have a plot.

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At November 22, 2011 at 8:21 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it not coincidental that I have arrived at many of the same conclusions as you re: literary fiction / the literary fiction "scene", and that our stories are side by side over at A Twist Of Noir. I second what you say about how supportive the crime & noir folks are. Although I will say there are a few cool people in the lit fic scene - they're just a lot harder to find.

At November 22, 2011 at 8:26 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

Without a doubt, which is why writing "all or nothing" posts is sorta pointless. There have been A LOT of lit fic folks who have supported and helped immensely, who are cool and generous, etc. But way more many douches too. I guess it's the pretentious stuff that gets to you (even if the word "pretentious" is, itself, pretentious). But almost across the board, noir writers are just fucking nice as hell.

At November 22, 2011 at 8:31 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find it amusing that the noir writers, steeped in blood and guts in their own writing, are nearly to a man & woman generous as hell, whereas so many lit writers, steeped in tiny epiphanies in rainy parking lots, are prickly douches.

At November 22, 2011 at 9:50 AM , Blogger DSobczak said...

If you found David Copperfield to be bad, try watching the movie. I don't know how many versions of the movie are out there, I assume multiple.

I am referring specifically to the Oscar nominated version from 1935. Aside from the performance of W.C. Fields, it was practically unwatchable.

Although not a fan of the band Uriah Heep, he is one of the better literary villians in my humble opinion. So that is one positive from that book.

At November 22, 2011 at 11:17 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

I will agree about Uriah Heep. The only redeemable feature of that novel (in my 'umble opinion, as well).

At November 22, 2011 at 11:40 AM , Blogger Joe Clifford said...

@Court: just read Vacuum Man. Fucking awesome. This is why I hang around these sites. No "epiphanies in rainy parking lots"--because life, at least not the one I know, doesn't work that way. Bad people (who want something better but can't quite grasp how to make that happen) and desperate times and rewriting moral codes. Thugs in Thailand. What a trip...


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