The brilliant Lorrie Moore is almost as spellbinding in her essays as she is in her fiction. Having recently turned the final page on her funny, moving, and highly intelligent novel A Gate At The Stairs, I was delighted to click upon her essay in The New York Review of Books on the TV series ‘The Wire’. Moore immersed herself in the complete five-DVD set of the series, which concluded in 2008, and two academic works of cultural critique responding to the show, to emerge with a compelling argument that ‘The Wire’ is less a drama than a novel.
The essay is so thoroughly enjoyable to read that I post it simply to remind writers, whether they are working on fiction or non-fiction, that genre and form are less important than intelligent wit, a wide-ranging imagination, and an abiding love of reading. I had few clues as to the literary past and present of Baltimore, the series’ setting, until I read this essay. Did you know that’s where horror writer Stephen King hails from?
Moore refers to everyone from Sophocles and Tolstoy to George Bernard Shaw and Denis Lahane along her thoughtful path, but it was two very simple sentences that stopped my eyes in their tracks:
Ideas are no good without stories. Stories are no good without characters.
While Moore goes on to talk about the strength of the actors in the series who made the characters come to life, I repeat her remarks here because they are true of writing generally. I often come up with an idea I want to explore in fiction, but lack a story to animate it. Or I think of a story, but can’t figure out the point of it. Good plots without interesting characters are plain dull.
On the latter point, I am also learning the hard way (translation: hundreds of discarded draft pages) that perhaps I need to let go more, simply tell a story and see where it wants to take me. To loosen the reins and hold on for dear life. Lorrie Moore and ‘The Wire’ show us that these things are rare, they are difficult, but they are possible, and that they are worth striving for.