Is “The Wire” a Novel?

HBO’s series about organizational dysfunction in Baltimore, “The Wire,” debuted its fifth and final season last night. Me, I’m one of the critics who received advance screeners of the season, and I’m holding fire on registering an opinion on it for a little bit yet; I’m working on a piece for City Paper about it. I will say that much of the season scratches the itches I want “The Wire” to scratch, but I’m also wrangling with a few things I’m finding problematic. Getting too deep into that right now involves spoilers, so for now I’ll hold tight.

One thing that I and other critics have been discussing, though, is whether to call “The Wire” a novel. Maud Newton says no: “Watching it is not the same as reading. But I can’t join in pulling out the violins over the (supposed) death of fiction when TV as a form is revealing itself to have this kind of narrative potential.” The New York Times says yes, making much of how the word Dickensian gets batted around in the show. (One episode is titled “The Dickensian Aspect.”)

Me being the third-way fellow that I am, I think both make good points. “The Wire” is certainly in the tradition of social novels like Hard Times, Upton Sinclair‘s The Jungle, and John Steinbeck‘s The Grapes of Wrath. The difference, though, is that those novels had ambitions to affect social change. (And, to some extent, they followed through.) But “Wire” creator David Simon knows he’s in an era when the social novel doesn’t matter the way it used to–one of the chief models for the show, Richard Price‘s Clockers (a novel as Dickensian as American fiction has been in recent years), didn’t do a thing about the crack epidemic it describes, let alone American drug policy. “The Wire” understands that lack of force, and tries to understand the reasons why these stories don’t penetrated the public consciousness anymore. It’s a social novel that acknowledges the toothlessness of the modern social novel.

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