Storyville: What is Neo-Noir Fiction?
NOTE: While many of these definitions may be accepted by the writing, publishing, and literary communities, much of how I see these genres and sub-genres is strictly my opinion. So it’s subjective, and not exhaustive. I don’t consider myself an expert on much of anything, but I’d like to think that based on my writing history, the authors I’ve studied under, my MFA, and my current work as a writer, editor, teacher, and publisher that I've learned a lot about these various flavors of writing.
Neo-noir in English is simply “new-black,” from the Greek “neo” for new, and the French “noir” for black.
Here’s what I wrote for a recent article on “10 Essential Neo-Noir Authors” over at Flavorwire: “What is neo-noir fiction? It’s contemporary dark fiction. It was built on the backbone of classic noir and hardboiled fiction, but it’s evolved to be so much more than that. It is a genre-bending sub-genre that includes edgy literary fiction, as well as fantasy, science fiction, and horror. It also touches on niche storytelling like magical realism, slipstream, transgressive, and the grotesque.”
NEO-NOIR AND CLASSIC NOIR
For a lot of people, neo-noir is simply noir set in modern times. I agree and I disagree. I see classic noir and hardboiled fiction as having a certain voice, the word usage and characters fitting into a certain mold. Noir to me is a mix of detectives and femme fatales, a formula where there is a crime to be solved, dames and guns, and it’s all in black and white. Neo-noir isn’t as restricted. I don’t think you have to have a detective or cop at all, and you don’t have to have a woman in distress. When I say contemporary, it can still be set in the past 50 years—it really just depends on the tone, the voice. It can also be set far into the future. For many, noir has to be tragic, so the ending should be on a down note. I think that’s common, but again, I don’t think it’s mandatory. If the entire story is dark, the setting one of shadows and lost nights, but there is a ray of hope at the end, I think that’s okay.
...AND THE FANTASTIC
When it comes to fantasy and science fiction, it can certainly fall into the world of neo-noir. What it isn’t, unless you’re Wells Tower, is dragons and swords. It all comes back to the voice. There is nothing wrong with the supernatural in neo-noir, as long as the tone and mood still fit. I’d say that when it comes to the fantastic it should probably be grounded in reality, but really, what does that mean? A jungle setting on a planet much like Mars can veer into straight fantasy just as easily as it can turn into noir. It’s all about your choices. If it feels cliché or too familiar, then it probably isn’t neo-noir. Keep in the mind those two words—new and black.
...AND THE HORRIFIC
What neo-noir is not is straight horror, built on the classic models of vampires, werewolves, and things that go bump in the night. Update the genre and make it new again. Don’t rely strictly on gore—it’s not splatterpunk, not just about violence. Think Angel Heart. In horror there are really two ways to define the genre—fear (terror) and disgust (horror). You can be horrified, frightened, tense and anxious or you can be revolted by what you see. Often it’s both. Take that classic horror idea of tension and make it new, make it special, something we haven’t seen before, and don’t rely on the monster, the beast, don’t rely on the blood and guts. Be smarter than that. I think the only thing harder to write than horror is comedy. It is definitely tough to scare people, but if you can worm your way into a contemporary setting, something your audience can relate to, then you have a chance. Update: I've since written this column on terror vs horror, which may add some insight to this section.
...AND MAGICAL REALISM
What I like about magical realism, a very popular and emerging sub-genre, is the ability to write a story that starts in the real world, starts with places, people, and things that we recognize, but eventually turns into something much more. Usually restricted to literary fiction, these stories and novels are smart and grounded, but sprinkled with strange, exciting moments and epiphanies that take us in an entirely different direction. And if that happens to be into the darkness, black magic or otherwise, then it can certainly fit into the world of neo-noir. These are not the Disney fairy tales, but the Grimm fairy tales, where the children get eaten, the babies are taken, and the shadows of the forest are dark and deep.
You may have heard this term used before in regards to speculative fiction, primarily fantasy and science fiction. When you bridge the gap between classic fantasy and science fiction to reach literary fiction, this is what I’m talking about. It’s also been called the new-weird ("noird") or the fiction of strangeness. I’ve also heard it applied to fiction that slips in and out of reality, stories that turn surreal, even bizarre. I think you can see how this would fit into the neo-noir world. Update: I DO THINK the new-weird is actually its own thing, something I wasn't AS aware of back when I wrote this. The new-weird came out of the OLD weird (Lovecraft) merged with the visceral body horror of Clive Barker.
...AND THE GROTESQUE
When I think of the grotesque, the first thing that comes to mind is gross, or disgusting. But while it may have evolved out of sideshow freaks and the circus, and before that the ancient Greeks, the creatures that exist in these stories elicit both empathy and disgust. You can imagine Frankenstein, the Elephant Man, or Gollum fitting into these roles. To expand on the grotesque, Flannery O’Connor talked about the grotesque as being a moment in time, a rare occurrence of horror, surprise, or a crossroads. You can see how these kind of bizarre, strange, and pivotal moments can lend themselves to neo-noir fiction.
...AND THE TRANSGRESSIVE
I see transgressive fiction as simply being about a central character who is rebelling against the rules, laws, and regulations of the world around them—police, teachers, family, friends, sexuality, drugs, violence—you name it. Of course Fight Club and Trainspotting come to mind when I think of this kind of writing. Whatever taboo subject you write about, it’s also easy to see how transgressive fiction fits into neo-noir writing—the mentally ill, the anti-social, and nihilistic all lead us down dark roads and paths.
...AND SOUTHERN GOTHIC
Similar to the grotesque, much of Southern gothic fiction of course takes place in the south. And the geography of these stories lends itself to the history of the south and its politics, laws, poverty, alienation, racism, crime, and violence—which all create a certain atmosphere. These are stories about the deeply flawed, disturbed, and damaged people, in derelict, decomposing settings. But the gothic isn’t restricted to the south, or the rural—it can be anywhere in the United States, or the world, really. So of course neo-noir can exist in Southern gothic literature as well.
...AND LITERARY FICTION
There are certain characteristics that are attributed to literary fiction—a seriousness and complexity, introspective prose with layered characters, elegantly written, an in-depth study of people and emotions often told at a slower pace. Which can be either boring or fascinating, depending on the author. And that’s not to say that genre fiction doesn't also have these same characteristics. In fact, part of the neo-noir movement, this genre-bending fiction, is doing exactly that—taking the best of genre fiction and blending it with the best of literary fiction. Literary fiction can certainly fit into the chorus of voices that is neo-noir, and in fact, those are usually the authors I’m most drawn to when forced to pick from literary lists, whether that’s in my MFA program or reading in general. These black sheep are some of the most compelling voices in literature today.
Laird Barron wrote an amazing foreword to the anthology I edited at Dark House Press, The New Black. I wanted to add this quote to give you another example of how this sub-genre can be defined and explained:
It bears reiterating: The noir universe has always been a dreadful place. Baby, with neo-noir the neighborhood just took a turn for the worse. Rules are out the window, the physics of morality, ethics, and fair play smashed to powder and in the wind. Reality is on a permanent vacation. This universe is more about guidelines in sand, passwords that are randomly overwritten, splinter cells and half-enunciated shibboleths. Maybe this particular cosmos is a yearning, sentient thing that longs to right its scales. Maybe it understands nobody is truly innocent. Blood pays for blood. We all get what we paid for in the end. Maybe that’s what matters. Maybe that’s what we need to hold onto when we’re navigating through the dark.
VOICES THAT DEFINE IT
Brian Evenson, Neil Gaiman, Dennis Lehane, Stephen Graham Jones, Craig Clevenger, Lindsay Hunter, China Mieville, Will Christopher Baer, Stephen King, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Jack Ketchum, Chelsea Cain, Roxane Gay, Chuck Palahniuk, xTx, Paul Tremblay, Craig Davidson, Holly Goddard Jones, Paula Bomer, Matt Bell, Jac Jemc, Kate Zambreno, Kyle Minor, Mary Miller, Benjamin Percy, Shannon Cain, Donald Ray Pollock, Kio Stark, Alan Heathcock, Lidia Yuknavitch, Monica Drake, Kealan Patrick Burke, Tina May Hall, Ethel Rohan, Roy Kesey, Nik Korpon, Amber Sparks, Cormac McCarthy, Jayne Anne Phillips, Denis Johnson, Mary Gaitskill, Joyce Carol Oates, Tim O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor, A.M. Homes, Ron Rash, Sara Gran, Daniel Woodrell, Toni Morrision, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, Bret Easton Ellis, Hunter S. Thompson, David Foster Wallace, Blake Butler, Steve Erickson, Philip K. Dick, and William Gay. (NOTE: And yes, some of these voices may not seem like classic noir or even neo-noir to you. I guarantee that all of them have done something innovative and dark and that the atmosphere and mood of their work was crucial to the experience. YMMV.)
NEO-NOIR IN FILM
I immediately think of the work of David Lynch, including Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet; as well as David Fincher, with Fight Club and Seven; and Christopher Nolan and his films Inception and Memento. Blade Runner also comes to mind, as well as flicks like Sin City, The Machinist, Angel Heart, Eyes Wide Shut, Oldboy, LA Confidential, Gone Baby Gone, No Country For Old Men, and many, many others. (Note: Updating to add Drive, Enemy, Nocturnal Animals, Nightcrawler, Only God Forgives, etc.)
I’m not sure if this column will make things more clear or muddy the waters. In looking over this list of genres and sub-genres, I think you can see now what neo-noir is not, and that it’s an attempt to re-imagine the classic genres, to make things fresh, new, and unique. And when you’re writing your stories, of course you’re just trying to do the best work you can, so don’t worry about labels, about genres, sub-genres, what exactly your tale is going to be, just focus on the story. I’m lucky enough to have an opportunity at Dark House Press, as the new Editor-in-Chief, to publish short stories, novels, and collections by a wide range of dark authors, all of whom touch on neo-noir fiction in one way or another. In fact, that list of voices comes directly from our website. We’ll be publishing work by a number of those authors in the near future, in The New Black (a best of neo-noir), as well as Exigencies (the next wave of neo-noir). There’s room in neo-noir for just about every voice, so stumble into the darkness and take notes, for when you escape, there may be a story to tell.
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