The Wire, The Novel and the MacArthur Grant

There’s a lot of chatter this morning about David Simon winning the MacArthur Foundation Grant. While it’s true that he’s hardly a starving artist, and hence there’s griping about whether or not he needs the money, I think it’s a fascinating choice on their part. Simon, along with his many collaborators including novelists like Dennis Lehane, Richard Powers and George Pellacanos, has in some crucial way reinvented the novel as a multi-part, long form television show. Or maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s the other way around, maybe he’s just plain old reinvented the long-form television show. All I can say is that The Wire, which I missed during the years it was on the air, is the most astonishing and rewarding and exciting thing I’ve ever seen on television.

I’ve been watching it all summer on DVD and chief among the many merits of watching the series this way is that without the interruption of seasons, one can really see the narrative arcs play out. This isn’t network television, and so the shape of the narrative is much closer to the shape of a great novel than it is a television show. Ideas play out over a long time. Motifs crop up, disappear, and come back. Characters have time to disappear for a while (I’m in the middle of season 4, when McNulty is almost entirely in the background) then reappear without the sort of idiotic explanatory crap a network show would stick in there because they assume we’re too stupid to remember who someone is if we haven’t seen them in the last five minutes. It’s a show that doesn’t assume we’re morons, that believes we’ll stick around in a world that is almost entirely black, that we’ll care not only about the scrappy bunch of eight graders who are still kind of cute, but about killers like Omar and Stringer Bell and Avon Barksdale and about the cannibalistic mothers who groom their boys to go out and take their places on those corners because that’s the only vision they have of what it means to be a man.

It’s also a show that deals with work. As Lorrie Moore said in this terrific piece in the New York Review of Books (which I was reading last night when the news came in about Simon),

“The most intriguing phrase Simon has used regarding The Wire is that it is about ‘the death of work.’ By this he means not just the loss of jobs, thought there certainly is that, but the loss of integrity within our systems of work, the ‘juking of stats,’ the speaking of truth to power having been replaced with speaking what is most self-serving and pleasing to the higher-ups. … in the world of The Wire almost everyone who tries to buck the system and do right is punished, often severely and grotesquely and heartbreakingly. Accomodation is survival at the most basic level, although it is also lethal to the soul.

One of the issues that the sweetheart and I have been discussing all summer long as story after story spews forth from the mainstream press about the “end of the recession” and the “jobless recovery” is the absolute stream of bullshit that is any actual discussion of the economy. We’re each of us in slightly odd positions in this economy, both insiders and outsiders — he has an Ivy League degree and has spent his career building houses, while I have the full string of graduate degrees, wanted to be an artist, and wound up spending a decade in corporate America, a place I never expected to be. We’re both pretty conservative, financially — we’ve mostly lived below our means, saved some money, don’t have a lot of debt, and bought houses we could afford to pay off. Neither of us ever wanted to get rich, but we’ve always worked, and have watched over the past decade or so as the boom-and-bust mentality of what passed for economic policy consistently screwed over those of us among the vast majority of Americans who don’t want to get rich, but who just want to work, have a house, food on the table, and maybe put a little bit away for a rainy day.

What strikes me about The Wire is that it’s one of the only portraits I’ve ever seen on television of how hard it is to just get by in America. The cops, the dockworkers, the teachers, the government workers — they’re all trying to stick it out, keep roofs over their heads, food on the table, sneakers on the kids feet. The Wire is the only show I’ve ever seen on television that shows the lived experience of what happened as we all stood by and watched while factories were dismantled and jobs were outsourced and schools and government and unions and the newspapers were gutted from the inside. Sure, for some of us, our 401ks went up as these big corporations posted profits that were based on getting rid of all their employees, but they weren’t real profits, they were short-term paper profits (or was it just the ponzi-scheme effect of shifting everyone’s retirement from pensions to 401ks?). We’ve all spent the past thirty years living for short term quarterly numbers with absolute disregard for the means by which we were meeting those numbers. And now, we’re all standing around in the aftermath, like Svobodka in Season 2, looking at the docks and the closed factories and the graineries and lamenting the fact that we used to make things in this country.

The corrosive contempt for the working class, the continual griping that “they’re” making too much money, the pissing and moaning about unions with the audacity to negotiate for health insurance all somehow misses the point. If there are no jobs, then no one is making any money, and if no one is making any money, they’re not going to be able to spend it on the consumer goods that drive the economy. A solid and healthy middle class is the sign of an economy in good shape, and somehow, we’ve decided in America that we’re going to let the richest 1% take 24% of the wealth of the nation, let the richest 20% take a full 85% of the nation’s wealth. I’ve never understood why people aren’t more angry about this, and all I can figure is that somehow everyone has decided that they’re going to win the wealth lottery — maybe this is what’s behind the insane proliferation of “reality” shows about people who have neither talent nor accomplishment. A loss of integrity regarding work indeed.

And so, I think it’s brilliant that Simon won the MacArthur grant. Clearly the committee thinks he’s saying something crucial about the state of our society, and is using a medium that is too often gutted from the inside by it’s own reliance on formula and cliche in order to do this. He’s given voice to a whole section of American society that is too often hidden or demonized, as well as to that great silent middle class that we only see as the but of jokes or satire. And he’s done it by creating some of the most compelling characters ever seen on television. It also seems fitting after a few weeks where white, upper class, highly-educated men have been claiming a book about their experience is the central experience in American society, that the MacArtuthur Foundation has bestowed it’s “genius grant” on someone who spent so many years drawing a detailed, compassionate, character-driven portrait of the America in which the other 85% of us live.

“Franzenfruede, Continued”

The sweetheart brought home his copy of The Nation yesterday, and said “Just read this, there’s a great sentence you’ll love.” Thank you Katha Pollitt:

It’s often said that women’s writing is less valued because it takes up stereotypically feminine (i.e. narrower) subjects–family, children, love and becoming a woman (ho-hum, boring!)–while men’s books deal with rousing, Important Universal topics like war, politics, and whaling, and becoming a man.”

It was the “and whaling” that had me chuckling all evening.

Eating Out in a Small Town

So, last night I was feeling festive, and suggested to the Sweetie that we go out to celebrate. I put on girl clothes, and some makeup, and he cleaned up, and off we went.

We live in a very small town. The options for dining out are very limited. There are two Chinese restaurants of the old-fashioned chop suey variety, a Mexican restaurant that isn’t bad, but is heavy on the shredded yellow cheese, a Bistro, an Italian restaurant owned by a very good friend (closed on Mondays), an inexplicably popular rib and chop house that I don’t like because the meat comes swimming in butter, and a general dining sort of restaurant that seems to get sold every two to three years.

There was nothing especially wrong with out dinners, but there was nothing especially right with them either. I had a nice piece of fish on some kale, and Himself had a burger and fries, but all in all, it mostly reminded me of why we don’t go out to eat that often. Nothing was really that much better than we can make at home. The service was a little off, which could have been because it was a Monday night in the off season. But in general, we left feeling sort of let down. We spent a reasonable amount of money on a just-okay meal in a terrible economy and frankly, we would have been better off cooking at home and watching (the really great) SF Giants/New Orleans Saints game.

I guess it’s an argument for learning to cook reasonably well. I like going out on those nights when everyone seems to be out, and when the point is as much the buzz of seeing people and simply being “out” — maybe with a nice outfit and a little makeup on. But for the most part, I like my own cooking as much as most of what I can get around here (and the lack of restaurants is one reason most of my friends are such good cooks, particularly of Asian food — there just aren’t any restaurants for that).

Regardless, it was a nice evening. We went out, dressed like grownups, and toasted my wee triumph. Then we came home, and I put sweatpants on and we watched the end of a good football game. All good.

Best Food Writing 2010

Here’s what was waiting in my inbox this morning:

From Kim Carlson at Culinate:

We’ve been sitting on this news for a little while, just to be sure it materialized: Your piece on croquembouchehas been selected to appear in the book Best Food Writing 2010.

It’s a great piece, Charlotte, and this is much deserved. Congrats!

You’ll get a free copy of the book when it’s released in mid-October (it’ll probably be sent to us, and we’ll forward it to you).

Bravo!
Kim

I’m beyond thrilled! As I replied to Kim this morning, it wasn’t that long ago I was buying those volumes trying to figure out what it was that I loved about food writing, and how I could do it. And of course, it wasn’t until I got a bee in my bonnet about something, and just sat down to figure it out in sentences, that I wrote something that really spoke to people.

It’s been a big year. When I got laid off last summer, I told myself that it was time to really get back to writing, and trying to publish (something I am a terrible coward about. Lo and behold, it seems to be starting to work! My first published story (“Robert Redford Speaking French” linked above) in Big Sky Journal, and now this.

And a big thanks go out to all of you, who I think of as my “twelve faithful readers” — the blog has, over the years, given me a place to practice nonfiction, to figure out how to say what I want to say, and you’ve all been so kind in the comments. Scarcely a troll in sight!

Okay, enough celebrating. Back to work!

Eight Years …

I was halfway through my day yesterday before I realized it was Patrick’s birthday — I was putting a date on an invoice, actually, when I saw that it was the thirteenth. That felt like a real achievement, to have gotten to a place where the day was just a day, with a memory attached to it, but mostly good memories, and not a day that stabs one in the heart. I put a nice old photo of the two of us up on Facebook, since a number of my “friends” on FB are friends of his and I like the idea that he lives on in the memories of those who loved him. We all had a little moment, raised a glass to his memory, and moved on again.

There’s a quote from Fenton Johnson’s terrific book Keeping Faith: A Skeptic’s Journey that I have had on my corkboard for years:

Before all else, we must define ourselves in some place other than our wounds — to find the courage to define ourselves rather than let our wounds define us. This is the great challenge and forgiveness the means through which it is accomplished. Faith incarnates itself not in beliefs but in acts; not in what I believe about God but in the moment-to-moment decisions I make in choosing how to live this day, how to be one with myself and to love and respect and forgive myself and my neighbor. In this it is a necessary condition for wisdom

It’s been a long journey, and while losing your brother isn’t something you ever “get over,” it is a great relief no longer to live in the place of my greatest wound. I love my little life. I love my house and my sweetheart and my dear friends in this strange and wonderful little town I found.

Eight years. It’s a long time, but good to have finally washed up on the far shore.

Franzen and “The Great American Novel”

I’ve been watching the hooplah surrounding the publication of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom with something of a jaundiced eye — it’s the Big Book of the fall, and Franzen’s getting similar reviews to the ones he got for The Corrections, that this is the book that explains what it’s like to live in the present moment, the book that expresses what it means to be an American, the one book that sums up everything important about our age. Those kinds of statements always get my hackles up. Really? The Great American Novel?

I’d been sort of rolling my eyes at the whole thing, but it was bugging me. I couldn’t put my finger on just what it was that was bugging me. Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Wiener had taken on the white-male-hero aspect of the story, and while the double standard is perennially annoying (when a woman writes about family it’s “domestic” or “chick-lit,” when a man writes about family it’s “the great American novel”), that wasn’t really what was bugging me. Like I said, I couldn’t figure it out. It wasn’t even the book — I haven’t read the whole thing yet (I’m waiting for the library to get a copy) but I really enjoyed the first couple of chapters when they ran in the New Yorker earlier this year. Patty was a character I remembered, and found myself thinking about from time to time. Which considering how boring and forgettable I find most literary fiction these days, that was an accomplishment.

And then yesterday, while goofing off and avoiding the work project I’ve been trying to finish up all weekend, I found this piece in the Guardian by Pakaj Mishra. Here’s the paragraph that got to me:

Still, it’s very rare for the reception of a literary novel to become a sociological phenomenon. Such encomiums as “great American novel” and “the greatest novel of the century” exalt Freedom to an oddly solitary splendour; and they make us wonder if the criteria for greatness and Americanness have a built-in bias against other kinds of novels, writers and literary genres (not to mention other media: The Wire has fair claim to be the most ambitious and successful American fiction of the new century). Certainly, the three garish and overlapping signifiers in Time magazine’s phrase “great American novelist” obscure rather than illuminate the range and depth of contemporary American writing. One reason is that populist evaluations of literature lean heavily toward the family saga. Most readers, Don DeLillo once complained, “would rather read about their own marriages and separations and trips to Tanglewood” since “it adds a certain lustre, a certain significance to their own lives”. This sounds a bit too caustic. But fictions about dysfunctional families, from The Sound and the Fury to American Pastoral, tend to be prominent in the official literary narrative of America; so do stories of ethnic minorities assimilating into American society.

The canonization of Freedom as “the Great American Novel” stakes a claim that what counts as the central American experience is the struggles of upper-middle-class white people seeking to move up in the world. Yes, Franzen is a satirist, but his claim that “I wanted to produce something that really connected with how it feels to be alive now,” assumes that his experience as a wealthy, well-educated, successful white guy is “the” experience of “how it feels to be alive now.” And I would argue, along with Delillo in the quote above, that this is, in some sense, the reason for the book’s crashing success with the critics. By claiming that the experience of wealthy, well-educated, literary white people is the central experience of our time, he’s not only flattering the powers that be and the critics and his entire circle, but he’s managing to do it in such a way as to render the specificity of that experience invisible. It’s like when I was in the Hamptons a couple of weeks ago. They all think that their way of life out there is normal, that it’s just the way “nice people” live. They’re in a bubble, where they’re always looking at one another and those around them and milestoning — who is moving up the ladder? down? But there’s no sense at all that the very baseline is skewed, that simply by being in “the Hamptons” at all they’re already in a tiny little subset of American life.

That’s what the hooplah over Freedom feels like to me. Like a great big self-congratulatory party in which everyone present reflects off one another a certain smugness, a certain sense of being in the center of things, and by reflecting this off of one another they are all blinded to the varied and interesting lives outside the bubble. And none of these smart well-educated people are asking why it is that they think Freedom is the Great American Novel instead of a book like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, for example, a book I’d argue is also “of our time” and certainly describes what it feels like to “live now” if you’re a smart oddball Puerto Rican kid growing up in New Jersey. Why is that experience considered something other than “American”? something other than “universal”?

The ignorance those in power, not just in publishing, but in our government and media, to the lived experience of all the American lives outside the bubble of privilege drives me crazy. And that, I think, is what’s been bugging me about the Jonathan Franzen book. That once again, the insiders have not only taken this opportunity to soundly congratulate themselves, but that in this day and age, they’re still so blind they can’t even see that they’re doing it.

Meat Reform and a Full Freezer

I’ve written before about the pleasures of buying meat by the share. This year, we bought a whole pig and a whole lamb from our local packer, Pioneer Meats in Big Timber, Montana. This is about half the pig (the other half is at the Sweetheart’s house) and all of the lamb. Plus cider from my trees in the backyard (although we made hard cider out of most of it) and some other random items.

These are 4-H animals that Pioneer bought after the county fair — nice clean livestock that never lived in a CAFO. The thing is, we’re only able to buy local animals because Montana is one of the few states left that still has local packing houses. As this article in USA Today notes,

According to a 2009 report by the consumer rights advocacy group Food & Water Watch, the number of state and federally inspected facilities nationwide shrank 20% from 2002 through 2007.

The decline of small-scale USDA-inspected slaughterhouses comes as the demand for pasture-raised niche meats is soaring, thanks in large part to the local foods movement, the concern over food-borne outbreaks and media focus such as the Oscar-nominated documentary Food, Inc., says Jim Ochterski, agriculture economic development specialist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Ontario County, N.Y.

There are many small livestock farmers, such as Bermon, ready to meet that demand. “The bottleneck in the process is the lack of USDA slaughter facilities,” Ochterski says.

The meat packing industry has become increasingly centralized over the past couple of decades, and for most people, it just isn’t possible to buy an individual animal and have it butchered. An editorial in the New York Times this week, entitled Reforming Meat, notes that:

An even bigger problem is increasing concentration and vertical control. The number of hog farms in the country has declined by 89 percent in the past 30 years, the number of cattle ranches by 40 percent. Just as alarming is the decline in open, cash markets for livestock. Only 4 percent of the hogs in this country were sold in an open market in 2009, down from 62 percent in 1994. The rest were sold under advance contracts to the major meatpackers, making the meatpackers the owners. The cattle market is headed in the same direction.

We’re lucky here. We can still buy a single pig and a single lamb from someone who raised them, but in most of the country, this is becoming increasingly impossible. And it’s too bad, because being able to buy a single animal like this means that kids in Park County can still do 4H and that small-scale agricultural skills are being passed on. It means that I can buy a clean animal that I know was raised in humane circumstances. And it means that when the economy and everything else starts feeling a little scary, I can go downstairs and look in my freezer and know that come what may, we’ll eat this winter. I’m glad to see from articles like the one in the New York Times and the coverage over at Daily Yonder, that Tom Vlisak, despite his ties to Big Ag, seems to be working with the Justice Department to address the monopolization of the meat industry, an industry that’s bad for animals, bad for workers, and one that is making us all sick.