What Survives to Become Literature?

last updated: 10 April 2018 (approximate reading time: 3 minutes; 566 words)

I always find it interesting to see a disconnect between what people believe is classic work and work that actually becomes classic.

Take Shakespeare Dickens—both were commercial writers who were producing entertainment for the mass market. They were not creating work to be regarded as literary or artistic.

Both Shakespeare and Dickens are now regarded as being literature. But this regard has nothing to do with either writer’s intent or with the intent of those around them at the time they were writing. Both are regarded as they are regarded due to widespread public acclamation.

We do know of some of the other writers working at the same time as both of these authors—indeed, some are comparatively well known—but both Shakespeare and Dickens have their reputation built on their work.

We are all aware of work that is called literature today, but I wonder what will stand the test of time. What will be regarded as having literary merit by generations in 50 years, 100 years, or 400 years?

As you might suspect, I have some suggestions.

What Will Survive From Today?

I’m only going to make one guess as to a piece of work which will come to be regarded as literary and which will still be enjoyed for several hundred years: The Wire.

And yes, in case you’re wondering, I am putting forward a television show with multiple screenwriters.

What Gives The Wire Longevity?

I will write more about The Wire in future editions, but for now, let me point to a few of the reasons why I think this television show should be mentioned in the same breath as Shakespeare and Dickens.

The Wire is unique in that it treats the viewer like an adult. From the very first scene, the story has already begun and the viewer has to catch up and figure what’s going on. There are no flashbacks and there’s no telegraphing a character’s motivations or any other tricks to make sure the viewer “gets it”. Instead, the writers focus on putting the story on the screen and assume the viewer is smart enough to understand.

There is a broad and deep cast of characters. Each character is a fully realized three-dimensional individual. Each character has their own motivations and is driven by those motivations. There are no endearing quirks or characters added simply to crank up the drama or to bring some humor.

There is no one single motivation and no one character is simply good or bad. Every individual has their strengths and their flaws. Every character has their own personal line that they will not cross. But for every character there are shades or gray, compromise, and consequences.

There isn’t one single story in The Wire. Instead, each character is pursuing their own goals. Individuals operating together—whether as a police department, government, the District Attorney’s office, or members of a drug gang—drive the broad sweep of the story forward, but ultimately, this is a story of individuals.

And as a tale of individuals, the story is timeless.

It is a tale of greed, a lust for power and wealth, and in most cases a lack of care about the consequences for others of the individual’s desires. But the story also forces the characters to face the consequences of their actions, and in this context, the tale is a tragedy that can best be described as Shakespearian. 

Filed under

Category: writing
Author: William Shakespeare
Tags: The Wire