Skip to content
Licensed Unlicensed Requires Authentication Published by De Gruyter August 31, 2017

From The Corner to The Wire: On Nonfiction, Fiction, and Truth

  • Margrethe Bruun Vaage EMAIL logo


The orthodox view in analytical film theory is that the difference between fiction and nonfiction is anchored in communicative practice. Whereas the creator of nonfiction can be seen as asserting something as true, the creator of fiction merely asks of its spectators that they imagine the work’s content. This could be labelled an intention-response theory of the difference between fiction and nonfiction. While watching Supersize Me I am as a spectator very much aware of director Morgan Spurlock making an argument about the state of affairs in the real world, and I assess the truth-value of this argument. While watching Avatar I imagine that there is a population of humanoids, the Na’vi, on the planet Pandora, fighting for survival: I assess what is fictional (true in the fiction).

However, when it comes to truth claims the difference between the many varieties of fiction and nonfiction is not as straightforward as this. For example, one may argue that the spectator can and commonly does perceive even a prototypical fiction film such as Avatar as laying claims to truth in the sense that she may read the film allegorically, and search for the filmmaker’s agenda. Is not Avatar a critique of Western imperialism, and our non-environmental lifestyle, for example? It is not fully accurate to claim that fiction film does not make truth claims – there are several ways in which fiction films are taken as asserting something that the spectator is asked to believe.

Among the many difficult issues this counterargument raises, I will concentrate on only one here, namely on the case of social realism in fiction. Social realism arguably asserts that something is true in our actual world and asks its spectators to believe this – although works of social realism are also classified as fiction. The solution is not to dismiss the basic theory, but to make finer distinctions. I argue that one difference between prototypical nonfiction and social realist fiction is that nonfiction asserts that its contents (characters and events) are true as tokens, e.g., this person experienced this. As fiction, a work of social realism calls for imagining. However, such a work also asserts that its contents are true as types, e.g., these types of persons experience these types of events.

I argue that this can explain what the difference is between the truth claims made in the nonfictional The Corner and The Wire as social realist fiction, respectively. Creator David Simon emphasizes that The Wire’s portrayal of Baltimore city life is true, and is to be taken as making assertions about American inner city decay. The background for the show is found in Simons and co-author Ed Burns’s nonfiction book The Corner, written after extensive ethnographic observation of a group of drug dealers in Baltimore. Their intention to assert something as true is reflected in the academic reception of the series, in which it is celebrated for its authenticity and realism. Studying the style, narration and content of The Wire carefully further illustrates how these truth-telling intentions are communicated to the spectator. Its documentary-like style mimics observational nonfiction film, and its cyclical narrative structure, focused on an ensemble cast of characters typically marginalized in mainstream popular culture by virtue of status and ethnicity, is typical of works of social realism. The spectator picks up on these clues and expects a certain accuracy and authenticity in the type representations in The Wire, although she is aware that the depictions of these token characters and these token events are not true, but only to be imagined.

In conclusion, the theory presented in this paper may not be able to neatly categorize any given film as either fiction or nonfiction, as some nonfiction films make type claims and some fictions make token claims. I do not claim that the difference between type and token claims is sufficient for categorizing any given work as either fiction or nonfiction. More work is needed in order to categorize and describe the various types of fiction and nonfiction, paying special attention to the particular blend of imagining and belief prescribed by each, as evident in what the creators say about their intentions, textual features of the work itself, and critical reception. However, difficult borderline cases such as social realism in fiction do not collapse the distinction between fiction and nonfiction, as demarcated by the intention-response theory. Rather, such difficult cases should compel us to investigate more closely the communicative intentions and conventions at work. In the case of social realism, it is still correct to say that the spectator merely imagines that these fictional characters experience various events; however, she also perceives a double invitation to believe that these events and experiences are typical, and as such representative, of a larger group about which the work intends to assert something as true.


Alvarez, Rafael, The Wire. Truth Be Told, New York 2009.Search in Google Scholar

Aristotle, Poetics, transl. by S. H. Butcher, Mineola 1997.Search in Google Scholar

Bennett, Drake, This Will Be On the Midterm. You Feel Me? Why So Many Colleges Are Teaching The Wire, Slate, (24.03.2010).Search in Google Scholar

Carroll, Noël, Theorizing the Moving Image, Cambridge 1996.Search in Google Scholar

Carroll, Noël, Fiction, Non-fiction, and the Film of Presumptive Assertion. A Conceptual Analysis, in: Richard Allen/Murray Smith (eds.), Film Theory and Philosophy, Oxford 1997, 173–202.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198159216.003.0008Search in Google Scholar

Chaddha, Anmol/William Julius Wilson, ›Way Down in the Hole‹. Systemic Urban Inequality and The Wire, Critical Inquiry 38 (2011), 164–188.10.1086/661647Search in Google Scholar

Currie, Gregory, The Nature of Fiction, Cambridge 1990.10.1017/CBO9780511897498Search in Google Scholar

Flory, Dan, Race and Imaginative Resistance in James Cameron’s Avatar, Projections 7 (2013), 41–63.10.3167/proj.2013.070203Search in Google Scholar

Friend, Stacie, Fictive Utterance and Imagining II, Aristotelian Society Supplementary Volume 85:1 (2011), 163–180.10.1111/j.1467-8349.2011.00201.xSearch in Google Scholar

Friend, Stacie, Fiction as a Genre, Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society 112:2 (2012), 179–209.10.1111/j.1467-9264.2012.00331.xSearch in Google Scholar

Gjelsvik, Anne, ›Tell Me That Wasn’t Fun‹. Watching the Battle Scenes in Master and Commander with a Smile on Your Face, in: Rikke Schubart et al. (eds.), War Isn’t Hell, It’s Entertainment. Essays on Visual Media and the Representation of Conflict, Jefferson, NC 2009, 115–131.Search in Google Scholar

Hallam, Julia/Margaret Marshment, Realism and Popular Cinema, Manchester 2000.Search in Google Scholar

Harold, James, Literary Cognitivism, in: Noël Carroll/John Gibson (eds.), The Routledge Companion to Philosophy of Literature, New York 2016, 382–393.10.4324/9781315708935-33Search in Google Scholar

Hospers, John, Implied Truths in Literature, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 19 (1960), 37–46.10.1111/1540_6245.jaac19.1.0037Search in Google Scholar

Hospers, John, Truth and Fictional Characters, The Journal of Aesthetic Education 14 (1980), 5–17.10.2307/3332659Search in Google Scholar

Kivy, Peter, Philosophies of Arts. An Essay in Differences, Cambridge 1997.Search in Google Scholar

Lamarque, Peter/Stein Haugom Olsen, Truth, Fiction, and Literature. A Philosophical Perspective, Oxford 1994.Search in Google Scholar

Lavik, Erlend, Style in The Wire, vimeo, (04.04.2012).Search in Google Scholar

Livingston, Paisley, Cinema, Philosophy, Bergman. On Film as Philosophy, New York 2009.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199570171.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

Marshall, C.W./Tiffany Potter, ›I am the American Dream‹. Modern Urban Tragedy and the Borders of Fiction, in: C.W.M./T.P. (eds.), The Wire. Urban Decay and American Television, New York 2009, 1–14.Search in Google Scholar

Matravers, Derek, Why We Should Give Up On the Imagination, Midwest Studies in Philosophy 34:1 (2010), 190–199.10.1111/j.1475-4975.2010.00205.xSearch in Google Scholar

Matravers, Derek, Fiction and Narrative, Oxford 2014.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199647019.001.0001Search in Google Scholar

McMillan, Alasdair, Heroism, Institutions, and the Police Procedural, in: C.W. Marshall/Tiffany Potter (eds.), The Wire. Urban Decay and American Television, New York 2009, 50–63.Search in Google Scholar

Mittell, Jason, All in the Game. The Wire, Serial Storytelling and Procedural Logic, in: Pat Harrigan/Noah Wardip-Fruin (eds.), Third Person. Authoring and Exploring Vast Narratives, Baltimore 2009, 429–438.Search in Google Scholar

Nichols, Bill, Introduction to Documentary [2001], Bloomington, IN 22010.Search in Google Scholar

Plantinga, Carl, Defining Documentary. Fiction, Non-fiction, and Projected Worlds, Persistence of Vision 5 (1987), 44–54.Search in Google Scholar

Plantinga, Carl, Rhetoric and Representation in Non-fiction Film, New York 1997.Search in Google Scholar

Plantinga, Carl, What A Documentary Is, After All, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 63:2 (2005), 105–117.10.1111/j.0021-8529.2005.00188.xSearch in Google Scholar

Ponech, Trevor, What is Non-Fiction Cinema?, in: Richard Allen/Murray Smith (eds.), Film Theory and Philosophy, Oxford 1997, 203–220.10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198159216.003.0009Search in Google Scholar

Ponech, Trevor, What is Non-fiction Cinema? On the Very Idea of Motion Picture Communication, Boulder, CO 1999.Search in Google Scholar

Simon, David, Introduction, in: Rafael Alvarez, The Wire. Truth Be Told, New York 2009, 1–31.Search in Google Scholar

Simon, David/Ed Burns, The Corner.A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighbourhood, Edinburgh 2010.Search in Google Scholar

Smuts, Aaron, Film as Philosophy. In Defence of a Bold Thesis, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 67 (2009), 409–420.10.1111/j.1540-6245.2009.01370.xSearch in Google Scholar

Vaage, Margrethe Bruun, Fictional Reliefs And Reality Checks, Screen 54 (2013), 218–237.10.1093/screen/hjt004Search in Google Scholar

Williams, Linda, Ethnographic Imaginary. The Genesis and Genius of The Wire, Critical Inquiry 38 (2011), 208–226.10.1086/661650Search in Google Scholar

Published Online: 2017-8-31
Published in Print: 2017-8-1

© 2017 Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co. KG, Berlin/Boston

Downloaded on 26.9.2023 from
Scroll to top button