Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Nobel Prize for THE WIRE?

Those who share my passion (fanaticism?) for The Wire will probably want to rush to the latest issue (October 14) of The New York Review of Books for its extended article by Lorrie Moore ("In the Life of 'The Wire'") that reviews all five seasons of the HBO television series (and the 23 DVDs of the episodes in those series), as well as Rafael Alvarez' "definitive guide" (according to the back cover), The Wire:  Truth Be Told, and a collection of more scholarly essays, The Wire:  Urban Decay and American Television, edited by Tiffany Potter and C. W. Marshall.  These days, an American television program that receives international attention "ain't no thing" (to borrow one of my favorite idioms from Wire scripts);  but that attention to The Wire has been a far cry from the popular followings for shows like The Simpsons.  This was a television series whose narrative was not only compelling (one could say that of The Sopranos) but also deeply informative, an example of Aristotelian imitation at its best helping us to understand the social crises of the present day and the path through history that brought us to those crises.  It is diametrically opposed to current conditions in Ukraine, about which I wrote yesterday, where "National Memory" is enforced through processes of institutionalized "judicious erasure."  The narrative of The Wire induces memories too indelible to be tampered with, even by the elaborate machinery of any consciousness industry.

Thus, when Moore cites a remark by journalist Joe Klein (included in the DVD features on the final episode) to the effect that The Wire deserves the Nobel Prize in Literature, we should consider this exclamation as more than sensationalist hyperbole.  There is, of course, the minor nit that the prize has never been awarded to an institution or team, nor has it ever been awarded for a specific achievement.  A Nobel Laureate in Literature is been recognized for the achievement of a significant body of work;  but, in this context, David Simon certainly deserves to be a candidate and even has several published books to his credit that are more worthy of the "literature" label than any book Bertrand Russell had written when he received the prize in 1950.

Indeed, Moore is a bit too casual (if not downright sloppy) in her attempt to account for the path that led to The Wire.  That path began with Simon's work as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun;  and this led to a book that documented how he spent the year 1988 with three homicide squads.  The title of the book was Homicide:  A Year on the Killing Streets;  and it was successful enough (having won the 1992 Edgar Award, named for one of Baltimore's most famous literary residents, for best fact crime) to be picked up by NBC for the television series Homicide:  Life on the Street, which lasted for seven seasons.  Simon understood that the best journalism required a foundation of anthropological analysis;  and, even if he never established credentials as an "academic" anthropologist, he clearly had a firm command on how to bring the necessary techniques to his writing.

In the company of Nobel Laureates, Simon would hardly be the first author of "anthropologically informed" literature.  That distinction would probably go to Rudyard Kipling (1907);  and, if I were to select a "first American author," it would likely be Sinclair Lewis (1930).  However, when I think about Simon other authors come to mind, whose names are not on the Nobel list;  and those names include Charles Dickens, Marcel Proust, and (from a journalistic point of view) Upton Sinclair.

Simon's next venture into anthropologically informed literature was The Corner:  A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood.  This one was coauthored by Ed Burns, a former member of the Baltimore police force.  The title referred to a Baltimore street corner that served primarily as a site for drug deals;  and, true to that title, the book was structured in four chapters, one for each season of the year, beginning with fall.  This led to Simon's first project with HBO, a six-episode miniseries directed by Charles S. Dutton in which each episode developed a portrait of one of the characters from the book.

In this context The Wire amounts to an attempt to synthesize, through narrative, the law-enforcement perspective of Homicide with the street life of The Corner;  but this would be too limited a view of the project itself.  This synthesis could not have succeeded without a richer contextual analysis of Baltimore itself and the progressive deterioration of its established institutions.  The institutions that figure most prominently over the five seasons are those of the world of work itself (primarily the "blue collar" side of that world), municipal politics (with its connections to higher levels), education (again in the context of national policy), and journalism (giving Simon the opportunity to reflect on his own "turf").  The result is (to appropriate anthropological terminology) a "thick description" of a dying city that is not only as penetratingly compelling as Proust's À la Recherche du Temps Perdu but also as effective in "imitating" (remember Aristotle) a world through the elements of syntax, semantics, and rhetoric that define its language.  From this point of view, is there any valid reason why Simon should not be considered as a viable candidate for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

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