Back in the Hole

If you’ve already seen The Wire, Lorrie Moore‘s excellent essay on the show in the New York Review of Books won’t tell you much you haven’t already heard or read about it. The essay’s appeal is solely that of a smart, top-shelf writer giving her attention to a show that does a lot to get a smart writer’s brain working, and she gets a few great lines in: “Lance Reddick plays Lieutenant Daniels as a princely African-American Spock aboard the starship Baltimore” nails it. (The only apparent reason for the NYRB to take on The Wire now, even though it ended its run in 2008, is the appearance late last year of a collection of scholarly essays about the show, though there’s little evidence in the essay that Moore read more than the table of contents.) But if there’s anybody’s left who needs convincing of the novelistic qualities of the show, the essay should help settle matters. The show, she suggests, isn’t just “novelistic,” but a forceful attempt to expand what we consider “novelistic” today in terms of who gets to be written about in literary fiction:

The use of Baltimore as a millennial tapestry, in fact, might be seen as a quiet rebuke to its own great living novelists, Anne Tyler and John Barth, both of whose exquisitely styled prose could be accused of having turned its back on the deep inner workings of the city that executive producer David Simon, a former Baltimore reporter, and producer Ed Burns, a former Baltimore schoolteacher and cop, have excavated with such daring and success. (“Where in Leave-It-to-Beaver-Land are you taking me?” asks The Wire‘s homeless police informant Bubbles, when driven out to a leafy, upscale neighborhood; the words are novelist and screenwriter Richard Price’s and never mind that this aging cultural reference is unlikely to have actually spilled forth from this character; the remark does nicely).

This shades close to Walter Benn Michaelsfuming about how American literature hasn’t produced a great novel about the income gap. But Moore doesn’t dwell on the show’s politics within literature, just its power as a narrative—how it is, as she writes, “arguably biblical, Dantesque, and (Masterpiece Theatre be damned) more downstairs than upstairs.”

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.

“I’m a police.”

Since February the Guardian‘s TV blog, Organ Grinder, has been hosting a nerd-out about The Wire—FX is airing it there, and hopefully they’ve found a way to show it without bleeping out Clay Davis. (Or, perhaps more precisely, bleeeeeeeeeeeping.) The latest entry covers series creator David Simon‘s appearance at the Hay literary festival last weekend. Much of the ground Simon covers is familiar to anybody who’s heard him speak, but I hadn’t heard the anecdote he broke out about a squabble between Martin Amis and John Updike over some Wire-y language:

He also recalled the time Martin Amis was criticised by John Updike for using the phrase “I’m a police” in his 1997 novel Night Train. Amis told National Public Radio that Updike “should get a copy of David Simon’s Homicide”. Simon, who was listening to the interview in his car, thought: “Here are these actual literary lions arguing over some small part of a police procedural; it was the most exciting day of my life.”

(Street slang definitely isn’t Updike’s thing; Roger’s Version has plenty of acute observations of the projects in its Boston-like city, but practically no dialogue between people who live there.)

Most authors have a way of disappointing Simon, even the ones in the realist tradition. He told the Hay crowd, “I like Dreiser, but the guy couldn’t write a human being to save his life.” I’m curious what books by Theodore Dreiser he’s read; I can see his complaint applying to An American Tragedy, which hasn’t aged well and makes clear how much its characters are part of the book’s plot mechanics, but I’ve always admired the portrait of George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, which is one of the more effective descriptions of a slow mental breakdown in fiction.

Links: Keeping It Classy

A few reactions to Tuesday’s Bookforum-sponsored event featuring Walter Benn Michaels trying to convince David Simon, Susan Straight, and Dale Peck that American literature is off the rails because there’s not enough poverty in it, or something:

“The animated exchanges…demonstrated how everything Benn Michaels said could be totally right, as far as it went, yet be achingly incomplete.”

“David Simon got excited for a second while making the point that slavery DOES TOO STILL EXIST, HAVE YOU BEEN TO THE GAS STATION BY MY HOUSE, but that line of thought was pretty quickly abandoned.”

Michaels: “The majority of poor people in America are white. They’re not victims of racism. They’re victims of capitalism. The one thing no one wants to talk about is capitalism.”

None of the reports convince me that Michaels is being anything besides a little doofy and a lot willfully provocative, or that he’d be satisfied with any novel you’d recommend to him.

Better to just read a sensible commentary on the current primacy of historical novels.

Or the “bible” for The Wire that Simon wrote before pitching the show to HBO. (h/t Whet Moser) lists ten forgotten Pulitzer Prize-winning novels. Nearly all of them are news to me, but Karen Vanuska is doing some research.

Dinaw Mengestu‘s The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears a novel set in Washington D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood before it was revived by the city’s housing boom, has been adapted for the stage. It premieres tonight. In Seattle.

A scene from the funeral for Minnesota author Bill Holm: “Bill was laid out in his coffin with Bach sheet music and Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass’’ in his hands.”

Washington Post columnist Marc Fisher weighs in on the closing of College Park, Maryland, store Vertigo Books: “When a big company goes away, a Circuit City or a big bank, for example, the local impact is relatively minimal–some workers lose their jobs, but the effect is regional or national in scope. But when a small local business dies, we lose a chunk of ourselves, a piece of the thing we call community, the reason we live wherever we might live.” The store’s “Wake & Potluck” is tomorrow evening.

So That’s Where the Plot for This Season of The Wire Comes From…


Boing Boing links to a collection of vintage pulp-novel covers. Here’s the description for the Andrew Garve novel pictured:

There was only one thing wrong with Edgar Jessop.


And his newspaper colleagues were plotting against him, giving juicy asignments to willing girl reporters, promoting underlings and leaving his talent to rot in insignificance.

But he could show them!

And he did – – by committing an almost clueless murder, and daring the authorities to solve it.

But with his enemies multiplying around him, one murder wasn’t enough. There was another – – and plans for more – – until, slowly and relentlessly, the police closed the net.

Dept. of Self-Promotion

“What Happened to Our Show?,” my essay on the fifth season of The Wire, is the cover story in this week’s Washington City Paper. If you’re not keeping up with the show, or simply don’t feel compelled to read (yet another) journalist expounding on journalist David Simon‘s take on journalism, you may wish to skip to my interview with Richard Price. The conversation is mainly about Clockers–our chat was conducted as part of the NBCC’s “In Retrospect” series and should run in full…someday–but he also discusses The Wire, TV journalism, why he didn’t cover basketball for the New Yorker, and more.

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.