22 April, 2009

Writing like The Wire

In an article in the NY Observer, Leon Neyfakh poses this question: ‘Should Literary Novels Be More Like The Wire?’ First of all, let me say that I am a devotee of the now safely in TV history series, The Wire, a world that was made available to me through access to Netflix, since access to Cable has been scorned within these four falls by all its inhabitants including myself and we are now too invested in the point to be made by this to turn back. For a terrific essay on the thinking behind the show, please read Margaret Talbot’s ‘Stealing Life’ in the New Yorker (10/22/07) which describes the genius of David Simon, its creator. It is Simon’s way of ‘storying’ actual events that is being celebrated in the NYO article. Here is the beginning:

“Walter Benn Michaels, the punchy professor of American literature and theory at the University of Illinois at Chicago, came to New York last week and delivered an emphatic message to novelists: Please start writing more about class issues and the social order of contemporary life! It was a rainy evening, and Mr. Michaels spoke as part of a panel at the New York Public Library. At the center of the evening’s discussion was a brief, polemical essay that Mr. Michaels had recently published in BookForum in which he argued that the leading voices in American letters had, in their work, rendered “the reality of our social arrangements invisible.”

In his essay, Mr. Michaels implicated three groups of writers: those who traffic narcissistically in memoir and self-examination; those who write fiction about past horrors like the Holocaust and slavery; and those who focus in their work on the tribulations of individual characters while ignoring the societal pressures that determine those characters’ lives.

None of them, Mr. Michaels argued, would ever produce great art unless they reversed course. What novelists need to do, he said, is take a cue from David Simon, the creator of the The Wire, a show that portrayed over the course of five seasons the inner workings of Baltimore.”

Frank Sobotka
The article goes on to quote others who neither agree or disagree but who each speak, in essence, about their personal need to create timeless stories whether they are based in fact of – sorry – fiction. But ‘The Wire’ does much more than make a story out of fact. It does what Toni Morrison does in Tar Baby and Vikram Seth does in An Equal Music. It puts us in mind of each of its many characters, even the vilest of them (I have a particular loathing for Stringer Bell), and makes us believe in their necessary viability, and champion their particular – often vile, in the case of ‘The Wire’ – cause, vice, or mission. In fact, it persuades us to do this even when cheering for or believing in any one of these people is a mutually exclusive proposition. The gift of Morrison, Seth and Simon lie in the fact that we are taken through that intellectual discombobulation with effortless ease, such that we can convince ourselves that every character is both deserving of their own truth as they are right, and that all these people can be true and right at the same time. It is precisely the sort of hastily assembled but weirdly harmonious chorus of voices we choose not to hear in our own lives. (Unless we’re Quakers.And, if you are one, I salute you. If you aren’t, I urge you to try it. I aspire but will fall short, I fear, forever.).

But back to the blog. The stocky but strangely elven Frank Sobotka, secretary-treasurer of the longshoreman’s union of checkers (a lead in Season Two, picture above), is a terrific example of the kind of unsung flawed hero that gets unglued from the script and creeps under your skin. We become invested in a visceral way in the trivial urgencies and unnecessary deaths that are being depicted and the violence (and hard-earned speedily dispensed with sex) never seems overdone or gratuitous; it is simply the unfortunate grist of these lives as they are conducted, the way in which the terms of existence are negotiated and the form in which each individual story must end whether that end is psychological, spiritual or corporeal.

The topic of exploring the reason for narrative and the forms it takes must be in the air. Ana Menéndez, who wrote The Last War, quotes Umberto Eco in an essay in this month’s Poets & Writers entitled, ‘The Future of Narrative: Storytelling in the Internet Age.’ The story is about a linguist, Thomas A. Sebeok, who is hired to transmit, for the ages, the fact that the radioactive waste that was being disposed of by the US govt. was dangerous. The struggle? How do we retain the viability of the term ‘danger’ when all such meanings are ridden with the virus of cultural historical context?

In a review of Tar Baby, John Irving quotes this section from the book:

”At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph, paint or even remember it. It is enough. No record of it needs to be kept and you don’t need someone to share it with or tell it to. When that happens -that letting go – you let go because you can. The world will always be there – while you sleep it will be there – when you wake it will be there as well. So you can sleep and there is reason to wake. A dead hydrangea is as intricate and lovely as one in bloom. Bleak sky is as seductive as sunshine, miniature orange trees without blossom or fruit are not defective; they are that. So the windows of the greenhouse can be opened and the weather let in. The latch on the door can be left unhooked, the muslin removed, for the soldier ants are beautiful too and whatever they do will be part of it.”

And perhaps that also is the goal of the literary writer: to blend human experience which is so often imagined – in the form of aspiration or desire or fantasy or escapism – not lived, and fact in the form of actual events, to create something that outlasts the conditions which created it including its author, and which retains the beauty of a truth that is independent of its form of expression.

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2 Responses to “Writing like The Wire”

  1. Makus says:

    I love this line:

    “It is precisely the sort of hastily assembled but weirdly harmonious chorus of voices we choose not to hear in our own lives.”

  2. booklover says:

    David Simon talks Baltimore cops and crime in an exclusive article at http://www.wbqonline.com/feature.do?featureid=298.

    Also, if you love ‘The Wire’s writing – check out this clutch of books by the series writers at http://www.wbqonline.com/feature.do?featureid=308

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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