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posted by [personal profile] cathyr19355 at 10:34pm on 05/06/2013 under
I just finished reading an odd book.

It's called Girls Lean Back Everywhere: The Law of Obscenity and the Assault on Genius. The author, Edward de Grazia, was a lawyer who specialized in First Amendment cases involving obscenity challenges; he died earlier this year.

I had received the book as a Christmas present from my sister-in-law a good 15 years ago. Put off by the title (which sounded propagandistic to me) and its size (688 pages before you get to the endnotes and bibliography, which consume another 150 pages), I shied away from reading it. It sat on the pile of unread books on my nightstand (as opposed to the other piles of unread books I have elsewhere) untouched. A few weeks ago, moved by curiosity, the desire to read something different without having to pay money to buy a book, and the need to read something that would activate the lawyer parts of my brain, I finally picked it up and started reading it.

"Girls" was a much better read than I had expected. De Grazia was not just interested in the legal arguments for and against the government's entitlement to regulate or ban "obscenity"; he was interested in the stories of the artists and publishers who were broken by the struggle to publish, write or perform as they wished, and he writes about them compellingly and well. He does so by the interesting technique of stitching together their stories by joining large quotations from many sources--legal rulings, news articles, accounts of the artists and publishers of their law battles, and the "obscene" works themselves--with bits of explanatory narrative. The history of obscenity law thus provided spans the US and Great Britain, commences at the beginning of the 20th century with the story of the publication battles over James Joyce's novel Ulysses and concludes with the suits to prevent NEA funding of Karen Finley and similar "performance" artists in the early 1990s. This unusual structure is only one of the odd things about the book.

Indirectly, but powerfully, De Grazia presents two main conclusions. One is that the concept "obscenity" is, and has always been, too vague and subjective to be a suitable legal basis for refusing to apply the First Amendment to art. The other is that the artists who have been able to publish and present art that is shocking, sacreligious, and disturbing to certain elements of the American public owe their fortune primarily to Justice William Brennan, who invented a legal test that makes the poverty of the obscenity concept obvious. He required proof that a work was "utterly" without redeeming social value of any kind in order to ban it. Justice Brennan's test was sometimes ignored, but ultimately eroded older obscenity tests based upon "community standards".

The second odd thing about the book is that, in a sense, it also contains a history of the rise of the book publishing industry. The obscenity trials involved large publishers as well as small ones, and de Grazia also tells the story of how the large publishers managed to use the favorable results many of them obtained in court to build their houses into the foundations of financial empires. It is odd to read this account now, 100 years after the legal challenges to works of the 1910s and 1920s such as Ulysses and Sister Carrie, at a time when the Internet is slowly strangling the print publishing empires.

Finally, I learned from de Grazia's book that Andrea Dworkin, a feminist who was one of the leaders of the anti-pornography movement back in the 1980s, herself published novels that were not only arguably pornographic, but that contained BSDM and lesbian themes. Their publication does not seem to have been challenged on obscenity grounds, though they are not significantly different from other novels that were challenged. The implications of that fact are worth pondering.

"Girls" is an interesting read, though not the easiest read, for an intelligent and educated person. Lawyers may have a slightly easier time with it, because most lawyers get a bit of the history of obscenity in law school. However, my law school (admittedly, a Catholic-run law school) presented the obscenity cases as a fait accompli and as though that law was written in stone. In fact the opposite was true. Courts struggled to apply the "obscenity" concept for as long as it remained a live legal principle, because jurists found some artistic material too sexual, too disgusting, for public discourse.

De Grazia's book thus is a stunning exposition of how emotional prejudices can and do warp judgments, and that's a point we all need to keep in mind. It provides interesting perspectives, not only on the obscenity debate but on the roles of authors, performers, publishers, legislators, lawyers, judges, and police in the course of that debate. "Girls" provides a lot of food for thought, and in my opinion that's the best reason for reading it now, even though in many ways its subject matter, like its author, is now history.
cathyr19355: Stock photo of myself (Default)
posted by [personal profile] cathyr19355 at 05:56pm on 09/10/2010 under ,
For the past year or so, I have been a follower of "Zero Punctuation", a weekly cartoon video game review feature of The Escapist that is the product of Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, an Englishman living in Australia. "Zero Punctuation", named for its motor-mouthed style, is wonderfully obscene and funny, which is why I follow it even though I do not purchase home computer video games (the subject matter of Yahtzee's reviews) and know nothing about 99% of the games reviewed.

Yahtzee recently published a novel, a fantasy called "Mogworld," which my husband pulled off a bookstore rack for me under the innocent misapprehension that, since I enjoy Yahtzee's video reviews I would be interested in his writing. Having checked out Yahtzee's personal website awhile ago and found most of the writing there to be way too nihilistic and depressing for my taste,* I eyed the book with trepidation but, moved by curiosity, I bought it anyway, and read it.

I was pleasantly surprised. Not by the quality of the writing; I knew, from Yahtzee's other works, that he can write well. Nor was I surprised by the style of the humor; it was cynical and mordant, rather like Zero Punctuation. But I was surprised by the quality of the plot, the strength of the characters, and by the fact that, strangely enough, he went for a happy ending, of sorts.

I read most of the book convinced that he *was* going for a nihilistic downer of a story, and nearly threw it at the wall at several different points. But a gloom-and-doom nihilistic ending is not where the story ultimately goes. The story ends up at a surprising place, which in light of what's gone before turns it almost into a modern morality play with a quasi-libertarian twist. I can't say anything more, really, without spoilers (and I may have said too much already), but I recommend it, both for Yahtzee's existing fans and fantasy readers interested in a book that thinks outside the box. Literally.

* Yahtzee's old static site has been replaced by a blog that looks a lot like his Zero Punctuation reviews; I need to check it out.
Mood:: 'amused' amused
cathyr19355: Stock photo of myself (Default)
posted by [personal profile] cathyr19355 at 03:47pm on 03/01/2009 under ,
If you read no other fantasy fiction this year, consider reading Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy:

The Final Empire.

The Well of Ascension.

The Hero of Ages.

I just finished reading The Hero of Ages, the conclusion to the trilogy, a few hours ago. I have not been this impressed by a novel, let alone an entire trilogy, in a long time. There are no weak books, and few weak sections, in the entire three-volume work, which was clearly planned from the beginning as a cohesive and powerful whole. The trilogy marries an interesting world, a unique system of magic, believable, likable characters, a compelling mystery, a convincing solution to that mystery, and genuine thought on fundamental philosophical and ethical questions such as the reason why trust is critical to human life and the function of religion.

Two of the books are available in mass market paperback, and the last, though only out in hardcover, likely will be out in paperback by the end of the year. Go and read them. Even if you disagree with part of my assessment, I'm confident that you will be moved, at least by some parts of the story.

Mood:: 'impressed' impressed


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