Mark Bowden writes about acclaimed HBO Series The Wire and its creator David Simon, former journalist at the Baltimore Sun, in this month’s The Atlantic.
“Every reporter knows the sensation of having a story ‘ruined’ by some new and surprising piece of information. Just when you think you have the thing figured out, you learn something that shatters your carefully wrought vision. Being surprised is the essence of good reporting. But it’s also the moment when a dishonest writer is tempted to fudge, for the sake of commercial success–and a more honest writer like Simon, whose passion is political and personal, is tempted to shift his energies to fiction…
The essential difference between writing nonfiction and writing fiction is that the artist owns his vision, while the journalist can never really claim one, or at least, not a complete one–because the real world is infinitely complex and ever changing. Art frees you from the infuriating unfinishedness of the real world. For this reason, the very clarity of well-wrought fiction can sometimes makes it feel more real than reality. As a film producer once told me, ‘It’s important not to let the facts get in the way of the truth.’
Fiction can explain things that journalism cannot. It allows you to enter the lives and motivations of characters with far more intimacy than is typically possible in nonfiction. In the case the The Wire, fiction allows you to wander around inside a violent, criminal subculture, and inside and entrenched official bureaucracy, in a way that most reporters can only dream about. And it frees you from concerns about libel and cruelty. It frees you to be unfair.”
–Mark Bowden, “The Angriest Man in Television,” The Atlantic, January/Februrary, 2008