No one could ever accuse David Simon of a lack of ego, but in recent days, even his most devoted fans might have had trouble figuring out why, exactly, the creator of The Wire had grown so weary of their love. In an interview with The New York Times, Simon expressed “amused contempt” toward viewers who discovered the series long after it went off the air, or who found the show’s characters more compelling than its treatment of larger social issues. Although he later apologized, he still seemed to insist that those who enjoyed the show for its drama and storytelling—for “all the things that television usually affirms”—were missing the point. His remarks were widely picked apart online, but for those of us who have been watching Simon for years, the interview was only the latest in a long series of prickly, hectoring, often belligerent public pronouncements from one of our most talented writers.
Yet the more we learn about Simon the man, the more we can appreciate the tremendous, often mysterious control that he exercises over himself in his best work. Simon is opinionated, egotistical, and arrogant in interviews, yes—but when he’s telling a story about other people, he disappears. The cornerstone of his career is still Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, to my mind the best true-crime book of all time, and one so rich in material that it provided fuel for two classic television series. But although he painstakingly researched it over a year of firsthand reporting, Simon himself appears nowhere in the narrative, confining himself to a brief author’s note at the end.
This is also true of The Wire. Aside from a few strained scenes at The Baltimore Sun, Simon largely avoids direct editorializing, allowing his characters to speak for themselves until they assume a permanent place in the viewer’s imagination—even more so, it seems, than their creator intended. And it’s his lapses that are the most revealing. As John Gardner once said of William Styron, you can learn a lot about a writer from his slips—they show you the tendencies he’s worked hardest to overcome. Simon’s occasional descents into moralizing prove, if we had any doubt, that he would be happy to lecture us directly if he could. Instead, he laboriously subtracts himself from the narrative, clearly in defiance of his own public personality, because he understands that this is what the story requires.
To put it another way, Simon may be full of himself in interviews, but when it matters most, he knows that the story isn’t about him. This is a remarkable fact, and it deserves all the more emphasis in light of several recent high-profile incidents.
Take the case of Mike Daisey, the monologuist who fabricated elements of his show about working conditions at Chinese factories making Apple products. The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs began as a two-hour staged monologue but reached a much wider audience after a portion of it was broadcast (and fact-checked, the producers insisted) on public radio’s This American Life. Daisey lied—to the fact-checkers and to his theater audience—for many reasons, but most of his prevarications had one thing in common: they put him at the center of the story. When we compare this to Simon, who clearly loves the sound of his own voice but still took endless pains, over the course of more than 600 pages, to remove any trace of himself from action he personally witnessed, it’s like viewing works of art from two separate dimensions.
Daisey would argue that these examples are, in fact, fundamentally different. After the scandal broke, he wrote that “the tools of theater are not the same as the tools of journalism”—although he certainly didn’t discourage his audience from confusing the two. The trouble is that while he and other authors often claim to be creating a challenging hybrid of fiction and nonfiction, in practice, they’re just availing themselves of whatever elements are easiest. When Daisey claims to have witnessed events that took place thousands of miles away, it’s a marketing choice, like the vaguely true memoirs that play to our desire to hear stories in the first person. It allowed him to benefit from the aura of journalism while avoiding much of the work. But as Simon knows, the best reporters are often the ones whose faces you don’t see.
And if we step back a bit, I’d suggest that the Simon interview and the Daisey scandal together provide us with a convenient way to tell when a piece of supposed nonfiction contains significant fabrications: if an author inserts himself repeatedly into a work where the real source of interest lies elsewhere, it’s a red flag. Few memoirs or essays, after all, have ever been falsified to make the author seem less interesting, so the insistent use of the first person should be automatically suspect, especially if the story already seems too good to be true. Even if no actual fabrication has taken place, an author’s conviction of his own importance—or his inability to set it aside when necessary, as Simon can—often betrays a lack of perspective that implies that other compromises have been made.
Consider the case of Greg Mortenson, who recently appeared in the news again, after an absence, the day after Simon’s interview. In his bestselling memoir Three Cups of Tea, about working to alleviate poverty and build schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Mortenson famously put himself at the center in the most sentimental and flattering way imaginable. He was later revealed not only to have fabricated substantial elements of his story but to have misused funds raised by his own charity. At the root of both transgressions lies an artistic and moral failing that Gardner might have called frigidity: a tendency to place one’s own interests above what really matters. As a result, Mortenson was ordered last week to pay a million dollars in damages.
I’ve learned to become suspicious whenever I see an author introducing himself gratuitously into his own work of nonfiction. This is especially obvious in documentary film, when, in general, the less you see of the director, the better. It’s true that some documentaries benefit from the director’s onscreen presence—I wouldn’t want to take Claude Lanzmann out of Shoah or Werner Herzog out of anything—but more often, it results in a travesty like Catfish, which is poisoned by the filmmakers’ blatant willingness to insert themselves into events, dodge obvious questions, and string along their subjects for the sake of easy drama. By contrast, Errol Morris, whom many consider our finest living documentarian, rarely appears in his own films, content to cast himself merely as the slightly amused, critical eye behind the camera. Like Simon, Morris has plenty to say when he gets the chance, but he knows that his work is more effective when he remains unseen.
Are there exceptions to the rule? Sure. Artists like Herzog or Norman Mailer, to name only two, have put themselves profitably at the heart of their work, and it’s tempting to follow their lead. Yet it’s also dangerous. Every author starts, by definition, with the conviction that his own personality is especially interesting, which is exactly why he needs to hold himself, especially early on, to a higher standard of proof. When in doubt—and if we’re honest with ourselves, that doubt should always be there—it seems best to side with invisibility, trusting that if the facts are compelling, the work will be, too. Detachment, in other words, is a sort of safety first, a test of whether we’re really as fascinating as we tend to think we are.
One could argue, of course, that all forms of nonfiction, no matter how objective, are implicitly written in the first person, and that every documentary is shaped by an invisible process of selection and arrangement. There’s no doubt that Morris, for instance, imposes a massive amount of personal interpretation on the footage he collects. But a real artist expresses himself in his choice of details in the editing room, not by inserting himself distractingly into the frame. And as soon as he takes a leading role in someone else’s story, he’s only a few steps away from revising the facts to carve out a more comfortable place for himself.
Poetry, T. S. Eliot wrote, “is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Simon, like many artists, is a man with an authentic, often unmanageable personality who expresses himself unforgettably in the depiction of other strong personalities in his work. His recent remarks only underline his ruthless objectivity elsewhere as a writer, which he seems to have willed into existence, out of a sense of artistic responsibility, in defiance of all natural inclination—something the Daiseys and Mortensons of the world may never understand. “But, of course,” Eliot concludes, “only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from such things.” And if David Simon, of all people, can do it, the rest of us have no excuse.