Law and Conversation

September 20, 2010

Read This: Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Speak”

I don’t know whether “Speak,” the YA novel by acclaimed and award-winning writer Laurie Halse Anderson that eloquently conveys a high school girl’s pain over a rape and the ensuing meanness and social ostracism from her peers, will become a classic.  But, just in time for Banned Books Week, someone’s trying to ban it from a school library, which puts “Speak” in the excellent company of  many acknowledged classics that are now required reading in many, if not most, schools.

I had to run out to the library yesterday to find a copy of “Speak” after I saw the outrage on the part of Halse Anderson, as well as many readers and writers whom I follow on Twitter, over a Missouri management professor’s screed condemning the book as containing “soft pornography” because it depicts–in far from graphic terms–the girl’s rape by a high school boy. 

The  term “pornography” doesn’t have a legal definition.  Some of my dictionaries define it as “writing about prostitutes,” “obscene or licentious writing,” or “obscene literature having little or no artistic merit.”  For courts, the term that counts is “obscenity,” which the courts have struggled to define over the years.  U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart achieved immortality with his attempt, “I know it when I see it,” in his concurrence in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).  Nine years later, in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15 (1973), the court adopted a three-part test for finding that a work is obscene:  “(a) whether the average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the work, taken as a whole, appeals to the prurient interest, (b) whether the work depicts or describes, in a patently offensive way, sexual conduct specifically defined by the applicable state law; and (c) whether the work, taken as a whole, lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.”

Many readers and writers who have tweeted and blogged about the professor’s article are having a hard time trying to figure out how any portion of “Speak” could possibly satisfy a dictionary definition of “pornography,” let alone any part of the court’s definition of obscenity.  Blog posts with more details about the book and the proposed ban are available here, here, and here, among many other places. 

Acknowledged classics that have been the subject of similar banning attempts include Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn,” John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” George Orwell’s “1984,” William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies,” and Harper Lee’s “To Kill A Mockingbird.  Sherman Alexie’s terrific “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which won the National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction in 2007, has also been the subject of banning attempts. You can follow Laurie Halse Anderson on Twitter here.

Have you read “Speak?”  What banned books do you like?

September 10, 2010

Trials of literature

Thanks to Harrisburg, PA lawyer and writer Harvey Freedenberg for connecting with me on Twitter and calling my attention to this story about the obscenity trial of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.”  In the Autumn 2010 issue of The American Scholar, Ben Yagoda writes, “for six days in late October and early November of 1960, Penguin Books was tried in the Old Bailey for having attempted to bring out a paperback edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which had been banned since its 1928 publication.”  Yagoda’s description of the literary star-studded cast of witnesses and testimony presented is fascinating for anyone interested in freedom of expression and literature.

Yagoda teaches English, journalism, and writing at the University of Delaware.  He’s recently published “Memoir:  A History,” in which, using memoirs from St. Augustine to the present, he discusses “memoir’s fraught relationship with the truth.”  The New York Times reviewed Yagoda’s book here; Yagoda also discussed it with guest host Kevin Sylvester on “The Sunday Edition” from the CBC on its November 22, 2009 program.

Other books that have been the subjects of obscenity trials include James Joyce’s “Ulysses,” Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl and Other Poems,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary.”  All are now considered classics.  More recently, a number of Turkish writers,  including Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, have been prosecuted under Article 301 of the Turkish Penal Code, which makes it illegal to insult Turkey, the Turkish ethnicity, or Turkish institutions.  Stories are available on the CBC, in the New York Times, and in The Guardian.

Have you read any books that have been the subject of trials for obscenity or other alleged offenses?  If so, what did you think of them?

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