Modern Noir and the Fluidity of Genre

At work last week, during one of the rambling intellectual discussions that tend to come up in our office, one of my coworkers dropped a bomb and said that “there’s no such thing as modern noir.” Said person then followed up with “I might go so far as to say that noir isn’t a genre, but rather an aesthetic” before walking out of the room, leaving me flabbergasted. In this person’s defense, there was a great follow-up conversation (mostly involving me and Russell explaining why this is quite wrong), but it’s not the first time I’ve heard this.

First, let’s get the second question cleared up: noir is a genre. Specifically, it is a genre of crime dramas, primarily in the 40s and 50s. Hollywood crime dramas from the time are more formally “films noir,” and literature in the genre is more often called either “hardboiled fiction” or “American detective fiction,” but such movies and literature can be correctly categorized as noir.

The first question, the existence of modern noir, is a bit trickier. In poking around, it seems the generally accepted term is actually neo-noir, and it’s loosely applied. Basically, if a movie or piece of literature has a detective, moral ambiguity, or even a dash of the stylistic tropes of noir, people try to classify it as neo-noir. This extends to, essentially, most fiction ever.1 I would personally require that a piece of fiction be a crime drama at core before there can even be a consideration of whether it qualifies as neo-noir or not (which is why I still think that Inception qualifies, although perhaps just barely), but the value of the label has certainly been diluted.

I’ve seen the same thing happen to cyberpunk – any fiction that is near future sci-fi tends to get slapped with the label. Worse are the variations of “punk” that came afterwards that have increasingly less and less to do with the core of cyberpunk.2 I notice this because cyberpunk is, itself, neo-noir, and so you can start to see how insidious it becomes.

The real issue is that the concept of “genre” has become so diluted and amorphous that any attempt to keep things distinct is doomed to hair-splitting. For years I resisted this, even as vampire fiction moved from the shelves of horror into young adult. The turning point for me was when SyFy (previously “Sci-Fi”) tried to market Battlestar Galactica as a drama instead of a science-fiction show in a press release which, sadly, I cannot find again on the Internet. I realized then that genre has evolved from a rigid set of reliable tropes and expectations into a loose collection of stylistic guides. I can accurately describe the Dresden Files books as modern fantasy crime fiction (and yes, even “neo-noir”) and be correct.

As a writer, this is actually a good thing. This means that I can just write whatever the hell I want, and know that the market will bend and twist to find some way to incorporate it. I might envision my story as crime fiction and find that it’s been shelved under science fiction/fantasy (or its more hipster cousin “speculative fiction”), but the point is that genre now bends to the artist, instead of the artist having to bend to genre. As a fan of noir, though, it sucks that I’m in a position where I have to defend my completely arbitrary distinctions with other people’s completely different arbitrary distinctions.

But at least it gives us something to argue about at work.

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  1. To be fair, I’ve been guilty of this as well, so I’m certainly not pointing fingers. Or rather, I am pointing fingers, but at one is pointed at me. Which is pretty painful, since my hand doesn’t bend that way.
  2. And again, before y’all jump on this, “gothic-punk” is just as bad, but I believe it’s far closer to cyberpunk than, oh, “steampunk.”