Critical Mass, the National Book Critics Circle board of directors blog (whew), has a post about noir fiction, respect, and evil. They agree that we lack adequate language for describing evil, although I am not convinced this is true. Language is inherently metaphorical, so perhaps we just haven’t developed sufficient metaphors for evil, or we cannot fully conceive of it and thus describe it, or perhaps evil people tend not to write books. The post says:
Banville read a section of “The Book of Evidence” to illustrate “the poverty of language when it comes to describing badness.” He then went on to point out that much of our fiction portrays us in a much kinder light than we deserve. “It would be a much better world if the priests and the politicians and the novelists just dropped this facade,” he said. “Even the best of us are monsters, horribly selfish people. Noir simply admits this.” Which, he continued, explains the sense of relief, of glee almost, we have in reading it. Gray agreed: “noir fiction release us of the baggage of morality,” he said.
I’m reminded of the cliche holding that criticism says more about the critic than the work, and I think the view of what people inherently are says more about the person making the statement than about humanity as a whole. I haven’t yet read The Book of Evidence, though my copy was signed along with Christine Falls, so I cannot say whether I agree with Banville’s point about language.
As far as people are concerned, I am convinced that circumstances play a greater role in who we regard as good or evil than most suppose. These situational factors affect whether we consider someone “evil,”, as Philip Zimbardo argues in The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil (he’s also interviewed by The New York Times, though this may be behind their walled garden). If so, that makes a view of people as inherently good or evil less interesting than pondering the circumstances under which good people do bad things, which appears to be the bulk of Zimbardo’s book. The only thing I really see people being is self-interested, and whether good or evil springs from that has more to do with circumstances. How’s that for combining a bit of psychology, philosophy, economics, and literature?
Going back to Critical Mass, I also note that it says the panelists respect genre fiction, something I especially appreciate given what my earlier description:
The sense of mischief might have come out when Banville showed a curious disrespect to, or at least distance from, the noir genre, calling Christine Falls “playing at fiction.” But he also said he created a new identity to show that Christine Falls isn’t a joke or literary lark.
Good fiction comes in many guises, and I want to know about that good fiction regardless which bookstore section it resides in.