May 21, 2011

"Justice Anthony M. Kennedy... said he aspired to Ernest Hemingway’s stripped-down language..."

Talk about falling short of your aspirations! Of all the Justices on the Court today, I find that Justice Kennedy writes in the least straightforward style. Ah, well. At least he means well. Or is he conning us with this Hemingway talk?

The linked article — by Adam Liptak, in the NYT — links to this set of long recorded interviews with Supreme Court Justices about how they write and how they want lawyers to write.
Justice Ginsburg said she had learned much from a course Nabokov taught at Cornell on European literature.

“He was a man in love with the sound of words,” she said of her former professor. “He changed the way I read, the way I write.”

Justice Thomas, on the other hand, cited only a single author, and then only by way of contrast. “It’s not a mystery novel,” he said of a good brief. “People can’t think, ‘I’m Agatha Christie,’ or something like that.”
Ginsburg and Nabokov. Thomas and Christie. What do you think of Liptak's juxtaposition? It's a literary device. Would you put it at the Nabokov level? The Christie level? Somewhere lower?

ADDED: Both Nabokov and Agatha Christie are discussed in the Wikipedia article "Unreliable Narrator":
A controversial example of an unreliable narrator occurs in Agatha Christie's novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, where the narrator hides essential truths in the text (mainly through evasion, omission, and obfuscation) without ever overtly lying. Many readers at the time felt that the plot twist at the climax of the novel was nevertheless unfair....

Humbert Humbert, the main character and narrator of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, often tells the story in such a way as to justify his pedophilic fixation on young girls, in particular his sexual relationship with his 12-year-old stepdaughter....
Now, you want your judges and lawyers to be reliable narrators when they tell you about the facts of the case and interpret and apply the law. Thomas said don't be like Agatha Christie. You need to tell it straight. But Ginsburg said she learned from Nabokov, learned to love the sound of the words. Liptak — I think — intended to make Ginsburg look good and Thomas bad, but it didn't quite work out that way.

21 comments:

C R Krieger said...

With DSK in trouble over sex crimes, does V Nabokov seem like a good example?

Regards  —  Cliff

Trooper York said...

I think he just means he likes big fish.

somefeller said...

As one of my law professors used to say regarding most legal writing (he was an opponent of florid legal writing and those who like it): it's not Dostoevsky, it's crap!

Trooper York said...

Or that he wanted to be an ambulance driver instead of an ambulance chaser.

edutcher said...

I like Thomas' approach, "It's not a mystery novel".

Too many supposedly educated people today write their stuff as if it were.

G Joubert said...

Most everybody wants to write like Hemingway. Very few can. Raymond Carver comes to mind. A testament to their greatness.

jimbino said...

Hemingway never mastered use of the dependent clause. Everything is "...and...and...and...." Boring.

Chase said...

In America, we have the freedom to publicly disapprove of our Government officials.

We can also disapprove of people such as Adam Liptak, who have a talent for writing, but serious mental challenges.

Seriously! Is Adam Liptak the best there is to offer? Do we read him only because he's the only thing available in the "Paper of Record?"

This article is just another thinly disguised Liptak attempt to insert put downs of Clarence Thomas, a black Justice that mortally offends liberals such as Liptak.

Does ANYONE really give a shit about seeking to judge the worth of a Supreme Court Justice merely by who they aspire to write like?

Off to morning brunch with friends . . . I will try to find out why it is so important to America why we find out exactly who our Supreme Court justices aspire to write like.


Is anybody else tired of this New York Times shit?

PaulV said...

Most written decisions are based on poorly written laws and contracts, so somefeller is correct, it's crap.

Ann Althouse said...

The main problem with legal writing is that the writers don't want to tell is straight. They may make a very direct statement sometimes, but usually that's an obfuscation too.

Hagar said...

I read Hemingway for a while when I was young and then got very sick of it. Like eating dark chocolate all week and acquiring a lifelong distaste for the stuff.

Legal writing is like it is probably because of the need to write more than is necessary in order to show that you are a hard worker and should be kept in employment.

phx said...

"...or something like that" nails it.

Hagar said...

I also quit reading Agatha Christie when it got so that I could not remember if I had read the book before or not.

Henry said...

I also quit reading Agatha Christie when it got so that I could not remember if I had read the book before or not.

That's when I started reading Agatha Christie.

Seven Machos said...

I had a law professor who said, many times, that he thought Oliver Wendell Holmes was a pretty crappy jurist, responsible for a lot of bad law on top of bad law on top of bad law. Thing was, Holmes wrote well, so it all sounded very sensible.

The lesson, this professor said, is to write well so that your ideas have a better chance at winning the day.

Sixty Grit said...

For sale: Kennedy's aspirations. Never used.

Oligonicella said...

"But Ginsburg said she learned from Nabokov, learned to love the sound of the words."

Some a that there empathy stuff.

george said...

I take from this article that Ruth favors form over substance while Clarence Thomas takes the reverse view. This sums up the contrast between the left and right in this country and on the court very nicely.

Thomas has to get tired of this insipid crap. Ginsburg no doubt loves it. She strikes me as being like a not overly bright pet bird that is easily distracted by shiny objects.

"Oh look! There's the guy that wrote the book about molesting children. I want to be like him! He is crazy-edgy-cool."

"By the way, do you have any crackers?"

J said...

Neither a Hemingway-esque gutbucket scribe nor a Nabokovian chi chi language-decorator be. (tho...Papa H a bit superior to Vlad., that crypto-czarist pedazo).

Lets have 'em cough up their essays on.....The Federalist Papers.

Simon said...

It's hard to write clearly when you can't think clearly, and Kennedy's opinions generally illustrate both failings.

Simon said...

It's hard to write clearly when you can't think clearly, and Kennedy's opinions generally illustrate both failings.