Law and Conversation

February 18, 2011

Looking for a few good (practicing) lawyer writers

Harrisburg, PA lawyer, booklover, and freelance writer Harvey Freedenberg recently asked me via Twitter whether I could name any practicing lawyers who write about law in the same way that doctors like Richard Selzer, Lewis Thomas, Atul Gawande, and Jerome Groopman write about medicine.

I haven’t read Selzer or Thomas, but I have read Gawande and Groopman, both of whom are not only very fine writers but also full-time practicing physicians.  But why couldn’t I think of any comparable practicing lawyer writers?  Freedenberg suggested Jeffrey Toobin, who’s a very fine writer indeed, but noted that he’s not a currently practicing lawyer.

I can think of practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of fiction–often legal fiction–and practicing lawyers who are very fine writers of legal materials or who blog about issues related to the practice of law, and nonpracticing lawyers who write very good articles about the legal profession.  But I can’t think of any practicing lawyers who have written nonfiction books and articles for the general public about the practice of law comparable to what those practicing doctors have written about the practice of medicine.

Groopman and Gawande seem enormously admirable to me, not only for their unflinching criticism of some common current medical practices, but also for owning up to and honestly writing about mistakes they have personally made in the course of their medical practices.  I know that there are plenty of very thoughtful lawyers who are every bit as concerned with improving the legal profession and the practice of law as those doctors are about improving the medical profession and the practice of medicine, but it strikes me that most practicing lawyers direct their energies into bar association activities toward that end, not to writing books or articles about the practice of law for consumption by the general public.

Readers, why should that be?  Certainly, there are ethical issues such as privilege, which Freedenberg noted as an issue in our exchanges, that lawyers must take care with when they write about the practice of law.  But do those issues–which are also present for doctors–preclude lawyers from writing comparably to Groopman, Gawande, and their fellow doctor-writers?  Are there other factors at play?  Is there a niche that’s waiting to be filled?  Or are Freedenberg and I just overlooking some obvious good answers to his question?  Please leave your thoughts in the comments.

A while ago I wrote about The Paris Review’s making its interviews with authors available online.  Now, I’m intrigued by the literary magazine’s new advice column, also available online.  The delightful Ramona Koval, host of “The Book Show” on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s Radio National, interviewed editor Lorin Stein, who writes the column, a few days ago.  Stein had some great advice for one reader who wondered which translation of Proust he should read, a question I’ve also been pondering since Scott Moncrieff’s classic translation gave me quite a bit of trouble a couple of years ago.  (Stein’s recommendation:  first read Lydia Davis’s new translation, then go to the most recently revised Moncrieff version.)  Perhaps Mr. Stein would give me some advice on another matter I’ve been struggling with:  which translation to read of Lady Murasaki’s “The Tale of Genji?” Waley, Seidensticker, or the gorgeously illustrated and annotated version by Royall Tyler?  Readers, if you have an opinion, I’d love your advice on that question, too.

Advertisements

October 29, 2010

More stories from interviews–and lessons for trial lawyers

Monday’s Read This! post urged everyone to read The Paris Review Interviews with writers, all of which the literary journal has generously made available on its website.  (Much as I love being able to read them on line, it’s nice to have some of the bound volumes, too, as I do, thanks to my extremely thoughtful husband.) 

Now, the CBC’s Shelagh Rogers has interviewed another interviewer in the most recent edition of The Next Chapter, one of the Canadian network’s programs on books.  Rogers’s colleague, Eleanor Wachtel, hosts “Writers And Company” and is one of my favorite interviewers.  (I like Rogers, too, as long as she’s not calling great American writers such as Walt Whitman “arrogant” or “immodest.”)

Wachtel has been hosting Writers And Company since 1992.  In her interview with Rogers, which begins about 12 minutes from the end of the program, she played an excerpt from an interview with writer, critic, and Yale University professor Harold Bloom.  Observing that Bloom’s reputation as a pugnacious reactionary defender of the classics, who disdained anything new, had preceded him and had made her initially unenthusiastic about the interview, Wachtel said that after she prepared for the interview by reading his works, she found, contrary to other reports of Bloom, “an engaging, passionate mind, full of enthusiasm.”  So, she decided to ask him about what he loved, and not about what he loathed.  On asking him about the value of reading, Bloom audibly teared up on responding that getting letters from people saying that his writing had sent them back to reading, or sent them back to a particular work that had meant a lot to them.  (I, too, love the classics, and many modern works as well.  Though I haven’t read Bloom’s works, I question whether the suggestion that he disdains anything new is warranted.)

For me, Wachtel and other great interviewers stand out through their genuine interest in and enthusiasm for what their subjects have to say.  The same goes for lawyers when they conduct direct and cross-examinations of witnesses at trial:  the most effective lawyers, not only in their appearance to judge and jurors but also in the information they elicit, are those who appear to be genuinely interested in and paying close attention to what the witnesses say.  (For more on this, see my article in the December 2006 issue of the Illinois Bar Journal, “Cross-Examination:  Beyond the Perry Mason Moment.”)

What makes an interview worth listening to or reading for you?

October 25, 2010

Read This: Author stories–The Paris Review Interviews

Dwight Garner reports in The New York Times that The Paris Review has now made ALL of its interviews with authors available on line.  This is wonderful news for anyone who loves reading, writing, or finding out as much as possible about writers’ lives and working habits. 

The Paris Review is, along with The New Yorker and Granta, the gold standard for literary magazines.  Harold L. Humes, Peter Matthiessen, and George Plimpton founded it in Paris in 1953, and its roster of contributors is impressive indeed.  Each issue has carried at least one, and sometimes two, interviews with writers.  The ones I’ve read are always prefaced by some background on the circumstances and surroundings of the interview.  The interviewers always ask good questions and you get a good sense of the author’s personality and state of mind at the time of the interview.  In fact, they’re really good stories that give the reader additional insight into the author’s works.

The archive includes interviews with Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy.  Never one to mince words, McCarthy tossed off a pithy insult about Hellman on The Dick Cavett Show in 1980, saying “every word she writes is a lie, including ‘and’ and ‘the.'”  The lawsuit that Hellman then filed made most of the rest of McCarthy’s life miserable.  As a lawyer, having seen litigation up close and personal, I can’t imagine that her lawsuit against McCarthy made Hellman herself happy for the five remaining years of her life.  It certainly didn’t do anything positive for her enduring reputation.

What do you think makes an interview a good story that you enjoy reading?  Are there other magazines that I should have included in my “gold standard” of literary journals?

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.