A Novel Simon

New York magazine’s profile of David Simon is one of the better ones, in part because it’s one of the few that isn’t an act of hagiography; like everybody else who gets assigned this story, Emily Nussbaum deeply admires Simon’s signature TV show, The Wire, but she doesn’t feel that obligates her to deeply admire Simon. At one point she presses Simon on why, if he’s such an advocate for journalism and getting the facts straight, he’s spent so much time making television dramas. Simon bats away the question at first (“Because I’m not a documentary-maker”), but later types out a more considered answer:

We know more about what Huey Long represented and the emptiness at the core of American political culture from reading Robert Penn Warren than from contemporary journalistic accounts of Long’s reign. We know more about human pride, purpose, and obsession from Moby-Dick than from any contemporaneous account of the Nantucket whaler that was actually struck and sunk by a whale in the nineteenth-century incident on which Melville based his book. And we know how much of an affront the Spanish Civil War was to the human spirit when we stare at Picasso’s Guernica than when we read a more deliberate, fact-based account.

And, to take his comment to its obvious conclusion, we know more about the physical and moral degradations that are spurred by the failure of civic institutions from The Wire than from, er, David Simon and Edward Burns’ nonfiction book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. But Simon is careful about how much authority he gives fiction. It is not a substitute for fact, and certainly not a home for the “larger truth” that memoirists bleat about when they’re caught out as liars; its just a way of delivering intangible emotional stuff (“emptiness,” “pride,” “obsession,” “affront”) that journalism (or most journalists, anyway) isn’t especially good at capturing.

But the most important word in Simon’s comment is probably “we”; the “we” that responds to fiction, he suggests, is much larger than the “we” that responds to journalism. A few years back I saw Simon speak on a panel about The Wire at Northwestern University, and he mentioned that he gave up pretty quickly on the idea that his journalism would actually change how civic institutions function; the job was just about bringing the best story you could to the campfire. With TV, he’s found a bigger crowd around the campfire. The New York feature has a sidebar Q&A with Simon’s late colleague David Mills, who figured he knew what Simon’s next move was: “I think eventually Simon will write novels or do another book and that will kind of suit him. He reads books, he’ll write books.” It’ll be interesting to see if Simon follows through, and how much his fiction might embrace the things his nonfiction can’t.

4 thoughts on “A Novel Simon

  1. If part of his point is to foment change (or did I misunderstand?) wouldn’t it be a better idea for him to have a show in a place more accessible than HBO?

    1. Hank, I think Simon’s argument has long been that HBO is one of the few places where he could deal honestly with an audience; he was frustrated with the compromises that he had to make to get “Homicide” on NBC, and frustrated with the way the show was treated. (Toward the end of its run, it was buried on Friday nights, where it was regularly beaten by “Nash Bridges.”) And now that DVDs of all the seasons are available, “The Wire” is pretty much accessible to everybody.

      Also, one of the show’s lead writers, George Pelecanos, has talked about how the audience that “The Wire” had, however small by TV standards, was still much, much greater than it was for any one of his books. I don’t know the exact numbers, but I’d bet the average episode of “The Wire” got more viewers than the best-selling book by any of the show’s writers. (Dennis Lehane’s “Mystic River,” I’d guess.)

  2. How much we respond to journalism relies heavily on who’s doing the writing. For one, Alex Kotlowitz’s brilliant There Are No Children Here tells me far more about the lives of public housing residents than any fictional treatment ever could.

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