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Author Interview: Law and Literature

Following a riveting keynote by Professor Ian Ward at the 2009 Learning In Law annual conference, editorial assistant Lloyd Langman interviews three Routledge authors on the subject of the intersection between law, literature and the humanities.

At the Learning In Law Annual Conference of January 2009, I was fortunate enough to see Professor Ian Ward (Newcastle University) give his Keynote address, `Legal Education and the Democratic Imagination' ( Dovetailing with the overarching theme of how legal qualifications can be best delivered, Professor Ward's paper, particularly towards its close, suggested that literature and the general humanities might play a more important part in a student's legal education, for “Literature makes for better lawyers”. As a recent graduate in English literature now working within what can sometimes seem an unfamiliar subject, I was intrigued by Professor Ward's line of reasoning, and I went about seeing what three Routledge authors thought about the issue:

Dr Adam Gearey (Birkbeck College,University of London), co-author with Professor Wayne Morrison and Robert Jago of The Politics of the Common Law (2008)
Professor Gary Slapper (Open University), co-author with Dr David Kelly of the annually-published The English Legal System
Professor Melanie Williams (Exeter), author of Empty Justice: One Hundred Years of Law, Literature and Philosophy (2002)


How much importance was placed on reading literature during your own undergraduate degree?

AG: My first degree was English Literature, so, when I came to do the CPE, it always struck me that cases were novels or short stories. Statutes were the great texts of the administrative state talking to the world. Given the confines of the CPE, it was hardly surprising that law and literature had no presence at all.

GS: The encouragement to read came from the literary enthusiasm of the lecturers and tutors. Additionally, there were plenty of literary allusions in the judgments, and in the books. So it was seen to be important to have a wide and eclectic store of knowledge: Blake, Tennyson, Kafka and Orwell are good examples.

MW: I read law at Cambridge in the 1980s and the program provided a wholly comprehensive education, with wide-ranging reading requirement, very much focused upon mainstream subjects in law. I felt a loyalty to the law, a subject so clear in its practical value and so wide-ranging in its philosophical relevance. Yet many in my cohort were studying English and I recall one or two lovely chats, debating the writings of Virginia Woolf or D H Lawrence. On graduating, I took a Masters in English Literature; looking at aspects of literary theory and literary texts helped forge a range of thoughts and connections in my mind of deep relevance to questions arising in law - from metaphysical enquiries about truth and justice, to equally profound questions of the reliability of language.


Recent years have witnessed a marked rise in the interest of multidisciplinary studies across a number of academic fields. Compared to other disciplines, how prominent do you think this approach is in the study of law?

AG: I think it's fundamental; cross-disciplinary work is a reaction against the narrowness of much jurisprudence, and a black letter approach to law. In the present climate, I think that it is connected with an idea that legal education is much closer to a general education in the humanities. This is not to say that one should not teach the relevant cases and statutes, but that they have to be placed in an ethical, political context.If, as seems to be, legal education and scholarship is thought of as training for the professions, or a form of policy studies, law and literature and other forms of cross-disciplinary work are out-of-step with the hegemonic ideas of how law should be researched and taught. If this is true, then it is time to begin a war for the soul of the universities and the disciple of law.

GS: Better than it was but not as good as it could be. For the first few hundred years of legal education, lawyers didn't let anyone without a legal training anywhere near the law department, and it was only from the early 1970s that other disciplines were tentatively let through the law school portals.
Encountering the science of Literature would, for many law undergraduates, afford a marvellous and useful new dimension to study. Much of law - in the construction of arguments and the narrative of judgments - is at its core about story-telling. It is odd, therefore, that this is not incorporated into legal syllabuses. And for that to be done well it would need to involve academics from English departments. Literature is, of course, about much more than story telling but no department knows more about it than the English department.

MW: My understanding is that law is very slow to respond to the potential posed by interdisciplinary studies. To some extent there are unavoidable constraints, yet, arguably, such programmes could be revitalised with no loss to the quality of coverage in relation to central issues in law or to Law Society requirements. Even if academics are wary of such radical change, substantial opportunities reside in the optional module credit spaces. I think we are all aware of the fact that law students can graduate without having developed truly flexible minds ready to meet the demands of the workplace. Not only does interdisciplinary study introduce students to a broader range of intellectual material, it also permits them to step away from the constraints of `legalistic' thinking, allowing them to view questions in the law with a differently nuanced understanding. Ultimately such links enrich the skills, including problem-solving abilities, necessary to really effective functioning in the world.


Does your law school offer a Law and Literature module? If so, how popular is the student uptake?

AG: Yes, taught by myself and Maria Aristodemou. It's a minority interest but runs most years. I taught a lot of T.S. Eliot and Heidegger the last year I was involved, and we also tried to read Philip Larkin and Joseph Raz together - it stuck me that they share a sensibility. Maria was engaged with psychoanalysis, so there was a certain amount of Freud and Lacan involved. I think it's fair to say that it's a law, literature and philosophy course.

GS: The Open University does offer many Literature courses which can be taken by students studying for a Law degree. Only a few students opt for such courses a year but I hope the number will rise as the benefits become more widely appreciated.

MW: Yes, and student uptake has been high. Students are initially wary of such a module, and may have reservations about the module's coherence - at first glance, the linkage between law and literature may seem somewhat spurious. Yet they can be assured that prominent members of the profession, from judges to city lawyers, appreciate the potential of such a course. My answer to the concern about coherence is this: yes, Dickens and Shakespeare have many examples of `law' in their texts, but the key is to seek the insoluble human question which law struggles to resolve, and to perceive how the author may challenge conventional legal approaches to such questions.


Which one literary work has most influenced you as a lawyer?

AG: Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology. It opened me up the possibilities of thinking.

GS: Thomas More's Utopia, a marvellously thought-provoking tour of life on an imaginary island were the modus vivendi is very civilised. Some aspects of it are quite severe but in contrast to what was around the author in the sixteenth-century when he wrote the book, the community of Utopia was wonderfully advanced. In particular, there are no lawyers. More wrote of this society:

they think it is better for each man to plead his own cause…the point at issue is less likely to be obscured…for if nobody is telling the sort of lies that one learns from lawyers, the judge can apply all his shrewdness to weighing the facts of the cause.

It sets into sharp relief what a very different society could look like, and makes you think about in what ways rules experts are and aren't historically indispensable.

MW: I'd say Tess of the d'Urbervilles, which provides the most compelling account of a person, Tess, trying their very best to be `good', yet thoroughly dominated and manipulated by social and cultural factors essentially beyond their control, culminating in the commission of an offense likely to be dealed with harshly by society and the law. There are parallels to be drawn with modern day cases of rape and of provocation in relation to murder; cases where the doctrinal position remains problematic.


Which living author most influences your thinking as a lawyer?

AG: Peter Goodrich / Costas Douzinas - books like Languages of Law and The End of Human Rights continue to indicate the horizons of legal/literary/ philosophical-deconstructive thought.

GS: The legal writing of Stephen Sedley, the Court of Appeal judge, is exceptionally lucid and compelling. He manages to develop the law and legal thinking through a unique combination of irresistible logic and inspiring language. I think it's quintessentially brilliant writing because the prose flows naturally in various styles - including gravitas, philosophical analysis, juridical reasoning, and wry humor - whatever is apposite to his subject matter. Sedley is the only judge to have in his Who's Who entry, under the heading of hobbies: “changing the world”.

MW: Probably J.G. Ballard - he is absolutely attuned to the odd and ugly paradox of human existence, especially in the absence of any religious rationale. He recognises the oddly experimental nature of human society and culture and the extent to which the philosophical, the anthropological and the physiological all hold mysteries. His perspective is not judgmental but instead recognises the rather tragic paradoxes of human existence - a very humanistic viewpoint.

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