English 236 Fall 2019
The Case of Crime Fiction: Noir Culture in Literature and Film
Instructor: Christopher Newfield
Why is crime fiction so popular? What kinds of psychological and social issues does it address? Why has it generated such an active body of popular criticism on websites like Crime Reads? Does crime fiction and film offer insight into issues like gun violence, white supremacism, and enduring gender inequality that can’t be found in journalism, psychology, or sociology?
I’ve been working on these questions while teaching a regular undergraduate lecture course called Detective Fiction. I also read large amounts of crime fiction for pleasure, and have spent a fair amount of time thinking about why. For me, the attraction starts with some basic conditions of the genre.
One is the master plot of a mystery connected to a cover story that has to be seen through; the process raises a set of existential and epistemological questions about how people can face the truth or pin down what it is. Another is the imperative, think or die. This is more or less the opposite of our own political world in which those in power are not accountable for their bad outcomes, false promises, or continuous surreal lying. A third attraction is the intensive treatment of paranoia, power, and authoritarian rule. Most crime fiction sees democracy as a con, and regards racism, sexual violence, police abuse, incarceration and related brutalities as both par for the course and as a mystery to be solved. Fourth, there’s a continuous interest in the psychological dimensions of crime and criminalization. Traditional noir is built on old-school misogyny, while newer work critiques it and regards toxic (hetero)masculinity as the fountainhead of depravity and discontent. Fifth, crime fiction and film diversified more quickly than journalism and many other forms of popular culture, staging repeated mini-renaissances in Black writing, writing by women of color, and queer writing that treated social issues in dual social realist-psychological forms. In addition, the genre offers the joint prospect of knowledge, courage, and ordinary heroism: it suggests that things may really get better when knowers have courage.
I’m interested in getting a broader sense of the popularity and impact of the crime-fiction genre and in seeing what professional literary research can do with it. I also have a job market motive: can expertise in popular genre fiction and crime fiction help PhDs get tenure-track (TT) jobs? Across the country, humanities departments continue to organize the curriculum into historical periods, yet have been offering fewer TT positions in almost all of them. For example, English departments increasingly hire for one main function, which is writing: jobs in composition and creative writing together amounted to 44 percent of tenure-track job listings from 2015-18. All US ethnic literatures amounted to 14 percent of TT job listings, with other US fields adding another 4.6 percent. Standard periods like 19th/Victorian and Modernism offered under 2 percent of jobs apiece. Cross-period subject areas are small (media students came in at 3.6 percent and digital humanities at around 2 percent). (These and other hiring trends are helpfully summarized at http://bit.ly/2X76S14.) I think about hiring problems all the time: they are tied to a broader crisis of knowledge and the professions in society. How do film, lit, and cultural scholars massively expand the share of college teaching / research jobs that are tenure-track without capitulating to market forces? How can we use graduate education to talk back to the job market and reshape it?
This course will:
- Build an expertise in a genre--detective fiction (and film)--that is of broad interest to students and to the general public
- Develop a personal, problem-based research agenda for dissertation purposes. It may involve this genre, genre or narrative theory, or any of the six historical problematics that we’ll treat as defining the noir genre and noir society--colonialism, repressed romantic loss, criminalized democracy, legacies of slavery, monopoly capitalism, and culturally-rooted psychopathology. You are also welcome to work on another topic of your choice.
- Explore different modes of teaching and practicing academic writing. As a starting point, we’ll look at the Internet success of popular criticism of crime fiction.
We will read work by Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Walter Mosley, Gillian Flynn, Sue Grafton, Lucha Corpi, Kellye Garrett, and Celeste Nu; we will discuss films by Billy Wilder, Orson Welles, John Huston, Ida Lupino, Roman Polanski, Jim Jarmusch, and Debra Granik. These artists represent a range of historical periods and sociocultural perspectives while also cohering around a core set of preoccupations. They’ve also produced amazing work.
We will be analysing the detective genre structures and formulae as well as genre’s theoretical systems. We’ll read contemporary theory in selected topic areas. I’m personally interested in models of psychopathic violence that mix Freudian psychoanalysis, attachment theory, and cognitive science; I’m equally interested in gender-inflected theories of “post-democracy” and authoritarianism. But depending on our common interests we can pick other topics of our own choosing. We will discuss and practice how to scaffold writing skills and conceptual frameworks.
Coursework consists of a theory-practice diary, a class presentation, and a final paper that can take a variety of forms. The course satisfies English’s Area III, IV, or V requirement.