Law and Conversation

September 30, 2010

Dinner guests from purgatory

Thanks to Zimbabwean lawyer and writer Petina Gappah for posting a link to South African writer and filmmaker Gillian Schutte’s account of a dinner party not quite from hell, but, perhaps, from purgatory.  Schutte’s impromptu guests were 2001 Nobel literature laureate V.S. Naipaul and his wife, Nadira.  I’m disappointed that she doesn’t report whether they brought a hostess gift!  The site that published Schutte’s review, BOOK Southern Africa, looks like a great resource for those interested in South African literature.

South Africa banned Shirley Jackson’s famous and deeply unsettling short story, “The Lottery,” after it was published in 1948.  On learning of the banning, Jackson reportedly said she was pleased, for it indicated that the South African authorities at least understood her story

After The New Yorker published Jackson’s story, it received hundreds of letters expressing shock, confusion, and disgust, which the magazine forwarded on to Jackson.  Some letters were abusive, and, indeed, Jackson’s own mother told her that neither she nor Jackson’s father liked it and wondered why Jackson didn’t write something uplifting instead.  An analysis of the story that appeared in the spring 1985 issue of the New Orleans Review is here.

I’ve previously noted that it’s Banned Books Week here in the US.   The American Library Association has published lists of the most frequently banned and/or challenged books, not just in the US, but in other countries as well, together with summaries of the reasons stated for the challenges or bans.  According to this article, Playboy reported in 1984 that “The Lottery” was among the 30 most often banned works in American schools and libraries.  But it’s required reading in many schools also, including the 6th grade honors English class in my own community.

Anyone who still thinks that “Twitter is for twits” should consider how writers and passionate readers (including me) harnessed its power to publicize an attack on Laurie Halse Anderson‘s terrific YA novel, “Speak,”  as reported by The Guardian, among other publications.   And any reader of my posts can tell that I don’t generally approve of banning books.  So many classics have been the subjects of banning attempts, and, whatever the book’s merit, it seems obvious to me that trying to prohibit people from reading a book has demonstrably the opposite of the desired effect, serving only to whet curiosity.  In fact, I well remember my own reaction the one and only time that my father, who, throughout my childhood, used to take me to the library (my favorite place!), told me I was not to read a book–“Love Story,” by Erich Segal.  That summer at camp, on discovering that one of my 11-year-old cabinmates had a copy, I immediately borrowed it from her and read it–and, on finishing, thought “That’s IT??!?”

First Amendment advocate though I am, I would agree that there are publications that have no redeeming value and should be legally prohibited, with criminal penalties for their creators.  Child pornography comes to mind, as do crush videos.  But, as the litigation over the law prohibiting the latter shows, it can be very difficult to craft legislation that doesn’t violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution (though the Senate is again trying).

Do you agree?  What do you think?

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