Oh, no, I wouldn’t guess that about you. I think of you as being, besides a writer, more of a critic and an observer.
It’s one thing to recognize capitalism for the powerful economic tool it is and to acknowledge that, for better or for worse, we’re stuck with it and, hey, thank God we have it. There’s not a lot else that can produce mass wealth with the dexterity that capitalism can. But to mistake it for a social framework is an incredible intellectual corruption and it’s one that the West has accepted as a given since 1980—since Reagan. Human beings—in this country in particular—are worth less and less. When capitalism triumphs unequivocally, labor is diminished. It’s a zero-sum game. People paid a much higher tax rate when Eisenhower was president, a much higher tax rate for the benefit of society, and all of us had more of a sense that we were included. But this is not what you really want to talk about, I know.
Well, no, I do want to talk about this. It isn’t technically about writing, but it’s very relevant to your writing.
I guess what I’m saying is that the overall theme was: We’ve given ourselves over to the Olympian god that is capitalism and now we’re reaping the whirlwind. This is the America that unencumbered capitalism has built. It’s the America that we deserve because we let it happen. We don’t deserve anything better. The Wire was trying to take the scales from people’s eyes and say, “This is what you’ve built. Take a look at it.” It’s an accurate portrayal of the problems inherent in American cities.
You worked with some great crime-fiction writers on The Wire. You’re also married to an excellent crime novelist named Laura Lippman. What do you think about the treatment of crime fiction by the literary establishment? I talked about this in an interview with Elmore Leonard earlier this year. I think that it’s really ghettoized.
It is ghettoized, but the funny part is that these writers wouldn’t want to walk out of the ghetto if they could. Now, I’m sure they would all love to be recognized for the literary merits of what they do. I’m not saying that. They’re not without professional pride. Richard Price, of course, began with literary cred and has not relinquished it. Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos and Laura, they began as crime novelists. Price began as a young literary lion and has nonetheless taken the milieu of crime as part of his demimonde. But what’s common to all of them is that they’re looking for the fault lines in society. They’re using crime to do it because that’s where these things are readily apparent. It’s where money and vanity and fraud and intellect and cultural dissonance all manage to show themselves in very blunt and fundamental ways. It’s a great bunch of tools in your toolbox.
And it’s true, crime fiction often addresses serious problems in American society with much more insight and attention than literature-literature does.
Yes, what’s really notable about American crime fiction is how much more the best of it has managed to get to in terms of society and politics and economics—and how little the literary world has managed to address itself to those things. I was on this panel with this guy Walter Benn Michaels at the New York Public Library, and I didn’t dig it because he was basically using The Wire as a cudgel to beat up on literary fiction. But I don’t want to beat up on anybody. I don’t want to generalize, because there are some good literary novels. There’s also a lot of navel-gazing—and there’s a lot of navel-gazing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I find that stuff unreadable and a waste of my time, but there’s a lot of good stuff, too. And then there’s a lot of really smart stuff and there’s a lot of crap in crime writing.
There’s no reason to generalize. But the highest end of crime writing is doing everything right now that literary fiction claims for itself. That is true. And much of what passes for quality literary fiction is not accomplishing very much at all that I find to have merit. So that’s my opinion. But having said that, this panelist took it to an extreme where he was literally saying, “Can we just write about economics and money and politics?” He was saying that literary fiction should be like The Wire, which is nice and flattering, but then he was saying, “Can we stop writing about slavery? Can we stop writing about the Holocaust?” He was basically saying that writing about cultural identity is bullshit. But it’s like, I don’t buy that either. I couldn’t write effectively about people if these sort of core 20th-century experiences or 18th-century experiences that still influence us were not part of who we are.
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