Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Does MFA v. JD Mean Literary v. Genre?

Last night, Time Warner, HBO, and Fordham Law School welcomed Scott Turow in conversation with public intellectual Thane Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum asked Turow why he hasn’t quit his day job now that he is a best-selling author. Rosenbaum’s question suggests this idea: if one is able to stay home, write, and live the isolated novelist’s life, why would such a person want to continue to practice law?

Turow’s answer was a simple: “If it aint broke…”

Turow has always been able to balance his dedication to law with his dedication to writing. In fact, a reason he went to law school in the first place was because he couldn’t turn off his imagination. His approach? Write anywhere. Keep an exacting schedule.

Turow’s optimism and faith in the rule of law set him apart from other authors who have written about lawyer characters or legal settings, among them Dickens, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky. Rosenbaum pointed out that unlike those authors who render more critical depictions of the legal profession, Turow regards the law as a noble institution. Turow added that the lawyers whom he knows to be happiest are the ones who stay in touch with a vision that the institution of law advances a more just society.

During the Q: & A: session afterward—“Q: and A:” is not quite the appropriate name for that portion of the program as audience members (similar to the ones who show up at PEN World Voices events) insist on making comments rather than asking questions—an admiring reader commented that Turow deserves a Nobel Prize for his sensitivity depicting the human drama. Turow was flattered and graciously turned the comment into a question (as a skilled trial lawyer can). He said, implicit in her comment was the question whether Turow feels comfortable being regarded as a genre writer rather than a literary writer. He responded to that issue saying that he is lucky to sell so many copies of his books and that in fact he has received respect from those writers regarded as more literary.

One issue raised during the conversation was Rosenbaum’s curiosity about how the toxic adversarial dimension of practicing law had not crushed Turow’s creative mind.

Well, we live in such adversarial times that the dimension of the legal profession that is adversarial does in fact reveal itself in the literary institution:

Literary Writer v. Genre Writer

If one is at that time in her life when she must face the choice MFA v. JD, she ought to embrace either path with enthusiasm and a clear understanding that there is no path devoid of adversarial toxins. The secret to avoiding those? Joie de vivre and singing in the shower.

Either way, it is a damn good thing Mister Turow never turned off his imagination.


Anonymous said...

Surely you do not mean to say that Turow's work is in the same category as the work of Dickens, Kafka, and Dostoyevsky?

Rebecca Jane said...

Thane Rosenbaum made the comparison in his talk. I think it was a cordial way to flatter a friend of his. Personally, I can't say that I categorize Turow, Dickens, or anyone for that matter. Writing is hard work no matter how the Literary Circles regard the ultimate product. I don't pretend any influence in assigning categories. My hat's off to anyone who writes and is serious about it. Thanks for your comment.