22 April 2009

Should literary novels be more like "The Wire"?

...is the title of a New York Observer article which takes a Bookforum essay about literature and the downturn to a bunch of novelists who, according to the essay writer, should not have written the books they wrote. Walter Benn Michaels criticizes books that take place in the past, most notably BELOVED and THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, because they aren't relevant to our current problems and in fact distract from those problems by reminding us that things can always be worse. Memoirs (too myopic!) and stories that emphasize ethnic over class difference are also out.

What's in? Novels about "society," for which Michaels provides the examples of AMERICAN PSYCHO and HBO's "The Wire," though only one of those is a book last time I checked. Naturally, the authors the Observer asks to account for their inability to write more generally claim they either have already done what's been asked of them (Wells Tower) or at least thought about it (Joanna Smith Rakoff), because apparently there's nothing indecorous about asking a writer point-blank "Why didn't you do it differently?"

"The end of the novel is sort of like the weather, people are always talking about it . . . but maybe this time, we’ll get some results," Michaels writes. This caught my eye because I have just started watching "The Wire," approximately 5000 years after the rest of the world crowned it the Best Show Ever. Michaels heaps on:
If AMERICAN PSYCHO harks back to the great novels of Edith Wharton—novels of manners in which the hierarchy of the social order is always what’s at stake—"The Wire" is like a reinvention of Zola or Dreiser for a world in which the deification of the market is going out rather than coming in.
I like "The Wire" so far although I'm only partway through season 1, but my viewing is undoubtedly filtered by having read David Simon's books HOMICIDE and THE CORNER. While both address the problems of Baltimore generally, in some ways they fail Michaels' test: They depict the past (the '90s) in specific detail (i.e. naming the bars where policemen drink) and develop particular characters, some of whose problems have to do with their ethnic and cultural background. Of course, Michaels would probably retort that Simon later learned his lesson, but I don't totally buy that either.

1 comment:

Wade Garrett said...

If Walter Benn Michaels read Plot Against America and failed to see how it was relevant to our contemporary political problems, then he either gave it far too literal of a reading or else he just missed the point entirely. Either way, I'm reluctant to take advice on literary theory from somebody like that.

When it comes to this sort of thing, I am far more inclined to follow Tom Wolfe's proscriptions than anybody else's. The sort of elegantly crafted 200-page novel that's only read by 1,000 people, all of whom subscribe to The New Yorker, is on its way out, and big novels that engage different aspects of society are in. But that doesn't mean they all have to be set in the year 2009 in order to be relevant - Underworld, The Corrections, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Cold Mountain, and Fortress of Solitude are all excellent examples. So, in their own way, are genre-bending writers like Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link.