Attempts to define noir often suffer from an I-know-it-when-I-see-it approach: The well-read noir aficionado has a mental list of novels that any satisfactory definition must reflect, and any definition that falls short is adjusted accordingly. The unsurprising result is that many definitions of noir are so broad as to be useless: noir is dark or gloomy or pessimistic or fatalistic or some other broad adjective (or collection of broad adjectives) that can be used to describe a particular laundry list of novels. Once this broad definition is established, there is sometimes an amusing consequence: Surveying the literary landscape, the noir fan discovers that not only do James M. Cain and Jim Thompson qualify as noir, but so do Flannery O’Connor and John Steinbeck and Fyodor Dostoevsky and Franz Kafka and William Shakespeare and on and on and on.
This impulse toward inclusiveness is the wrong impulse. From a critical perspective (as opposed to a book-marketing or book-buying perspective), the point of defining a genre is to facilitate discussion (and by extension understanding) by narrowing the swath of literature under consideration in a useful way. Therefore, a definition of noir that encompasses everything from Paradise Lost to Dennis Lehane is no good because it hardly narrows things at all. To put it another way, if noir literature is simply literature that is (for example) fatalistic, then we don’t even need the term noir, given that fatalistic already has it covered.
Discussing the idea of noir with fans of the genre can be a difficult business, in part because fans are so invested in what they love. This investment can lead to the broadness of I-know-it-when-I-see-it: Thinking of all the noir they think they have read, fans feel validated by a definition that describes the genre as they have experienced it. This feeling is sometimes compounded by the belief that labeling a particular book as noir (or refusing to do so) can reveal the depth of your understanding of noir while you are also passing judgment on the book itself. According to this way of thinking, if you do not agree that that, say, William Faulkner’s Sanctuary qualifies as noir, then you obviously do not understand what noir is (when maybe the truth is that you just don’t understand what they think noir is), and furthermore, you have impugned the credentials of Sanctuary.
How, then, might we begin to construct a useful definition of noir? One possibility is the we-know-it-when-we-see-it approach. There are a few novels—The Postman Always Rings Twice and The Killer Inside Me come first to mind—that we can probably all agree are noir, so we might begin building a definition using these examples. But the problem with this method, even before we begin disagreeing on our list of examples, is that it presumes a preexisting, “correct” definition of noir. In the world of we-know-it-when-we-see-it, we each have our it already in mind, and all we are really doing is choosing examples of our personal its that don’t violate the its of others. It might be interesting, in this way, to try to discover some kind of noir lowest common denominator, but the likely result would be the sort of uselessly broad definition already discussed: noir is gloomy or fatalistic or what have you.
Therefore, we are better off approaching the problem of noir historically. From the historical perspective, it is first important to remember that the earliest noir writers, regardless of who they were, were not aware that they were practitioners of noir. They were not self-consciously defining the parameters of a new literary genre. The genre of noir is an after-the-fact historical construct, so if we want to establish a definition of noir that is not only useful but also historically significant, we should begin by looking at the first use of the term (in 1945 by the French publisher Gallimard for their Série Noire) and at the novels that the term was first used to describe. This is not to say that the meaning of noir was fixed in the 1940s or that Gallimard, having using the term first, has the exclusive right to shape its meaning. Rather, this is only to say that anyone interested in trying to define the term in more than a personal way would do well to begin here.
So this is where I am beginning. I will be studying the first novels in the Série Noire with an eye toward an historical understanding of noir, and I will see where this leads me.