The law-and-literature movement
The law-and-literature movement claims to have introduced a valuable pedagogical innovation into legal study: instructing students in techniques of literary analysis for the purpose of interpreting laws and in the reciprocal use of legal analysis for the purpose of interpreting literary texts. The results, according to advocates, are not only conceptual breakthroughs in both law and literature but also more sensitive and humane lawyers. Whatever the truth of this last claim, there can be no doubt that the movement is a success: law-and-literature is an accepted subject in law journals and in leading law schools. Indeed, one indication of the movement’s strength is the fact that its most distinguished critic, Richard A. Posner, paradoxically ends up expressing qualified support for the movement in a recent study in which he systematically refutes the writings of its leading legal scholars and cooperating literary critics.
Critiquing the movement’s assumption that lawyers can offer special insights into literature that deals with legal matters, Posner points out that writers of literature use the law loosely to convey a particular idea or as a metaphor for the workings of the society envisioned in their fiction. Legal questions per se, about which a lawyer might instruct readers, are seldom at issue in literature. This is why practitioners of law-and-literature end up discussing the law itself far less than one might suppose. Movement leader James White, for example, in his discussion of arguments in the Iliad, barely touches on law, and then so generally as to render himself vulnerable to Posner’s devastating remark that “any argument can be analogized to a legal dispute.”
Similarly, the notion that literary criticism can be helpful in interpreting law is problematic. Posner argues that literary criticism in general aims at exploring richness and variety of meaning in texts, whereas legal interpretation aims at discovering a single meaning. A literary approach can thus only confuse the task of interpreting the law, especially if one adopts current fashions like deconstruction, which holds that all texts are inherently uninterpretable.
Nevertheless, Posner writes that law-and-literature is a field with “promise”. Why? Perhaps, recognizing the success of a movement that, in the past, has singled him out for abuse, he is attempting to appease his detractors, paying obeisance to the movements institutional success by declaring that it “deserves a place in legal research” while leaving it to others to draw the conclusion from his cogent analysis that it is an entirely factitious undertaking, deserving of no intellectual respect whatsoever. As a result, his work stands both as a rebuttal of law-and-literature and as a tribute to the power it has come to exercise in academic circles