Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Runaway Judge: John Grisham's Appearance in Judicial Opinions

Academic journal article The University of Memphis Law Review

The Runaway Judge: John Grisham's Appearance in Judicial Opinions

Article excerpt

I.Introduction

Each year, countless scholars publish articles in law reviews across the country, hoping to have some impact on the way courts interpret and apply the law. To have one's labors approvingly cited or discussed by a court is one of the highest compliments a legal scholar can receive. Thus, it is the height of irony that judges have discussed or alluded to the works of novelist John Grisham-an attorney who has never authored a law review article-in over two dozen opinions. Ironic though it may be, it is not entirely unexpected, given that even the Harvard Law Review and the Index of Legal Periodicals are no match for Penguin Random House and the New York Times Bestsellers List. While clerks skimming a database or flipping through bound volumes in the stacks of a law library can overlook an essay or a study, the tales of John Grisham, whether in paperback or on the silver screen, are difficult to escape. But do Grisham's legal thrillers have literary merit? Are they suitable for inclusion in judicial opinions?

The question of literary merit is a controversy that plagued the American university in the last years of the 20th century. Following the 1987 publication of political philosopher Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind-a damning indictment of higher education for what Bloom saw as its intellectual and moral bankruptcy-a debate erupted in English departments about which authors properly belong in the canon: those texts essential to attaining a liberal education.1 The traditionalists, Bloom's allies, firmly believed that colleges and universities should teach only the "Great Books."2

Their opponents, the "cultural relativists," many of whom witnessed or participated in the counterculture movement of the 1960s, were troubled by the fact that the canon consisted almost entirely of "dead white European males"; marching under the banners of Marxism, critical theory, feminism, critical race theory, etc., they argued that these authors did not sufficiently represent the breadth of human experience.3 In some cases, they rejected the very notion of a universal human experience.4 For this reason, they insisted on including books written by women and racial minorities.5 The cultural relativists won this dispute, and English departments expanded reading lists accordingly.6

Despite the decline of the traditional canon and the more expansive view of literature found on the contemporary university campus, the distinction between literary and genre fiction persists.7 Whereas the first is said to be an artistic work that is difficult to classify, the latter easily falls into a genre and is thought to be written primarily for the purpose of entertainment and, thus, commercial success.8 These labels are complicated, however, when one considers the participation of prominent authors of literary fiction in areas of genre fiction. One thinks, for instance, of Margaret Atwood's science fiction novels The Handmaid's Tale (1985) and Oryx and Crake (2003).

While those who hold to the use of these labels would surely characterize John Grisham's legal thrillers as "genre fiction," the consistent application of postmodernism-the pinnacle of which is deconstructionism9-invalidates privileging certain texts on the basis of this binary dichotomy. As Professor Mary Beth Pringle has written on the scholarly treatment of Grisham's works: "postmodernism and, in particular, postmodern literary criticism have done much to break down barriers between so-called levels of fiction, occasionally showing detective and romance novels as well as fantasy fiction to be subtly epistemological texts."10

This is all well and good, but what of the judges? Surely those who occupy the nation's benches do not much care about the deconstruction of literary hierarchies or academic quarrels over which books belong on a course syllabus. In recent years, however, a somewhat scholarly interest has developed in how judges use literature in judicial opinions and which authors they select. …

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