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Sunday, August 14, 2005

Elm Harbor and Fiction by Law Professors

Sadly, I have spent many hours of my last week before classes begin finishing Stephen Carter's The Emperor of Ocean Park.  My wife grew tired of my complaining about the book, since I seemed not to be able to abandon reading its 650 pages for more useful activities in the days before commencing my teaching career.  It really wasn't a very good book (the mystery element is engaging, if absurd); but something about peering into Carter's head through the book was fascinating.

I realize I should try to treat it as fiction, though I'm loathe to do so because I usually read only a single work of fiction per year--and this would really have been a bad candidate for that honor.  Despite Carter's protestations on the final pages of the book that the characters in his Elm Harbor (a/k/a New Haven) law school have no relation to his colleagues at Yale--and that the book cannot be read as a roman a clef for anything, anyone who has anything to do with Yale Law School will not be able to help trying to figure out which "fictional" people are composites of whom.  It was hard for me not to see Ackerman and Balkin, Guido and Amy Chua, among others, woven into the fabric of the main characte's colleagues.  And of course the main character has to be Carter himself, albeit a marginally fictionalized one.  It is just hard to believe that a law professor with little evident talent for fiction-writing could truly succeed at writing a good novel that is fully "fictional," especially when his chosen material is so close to home.  I imagine that many lawyers have some quite bad "fictional" book they've written at some time; most of us, however, realize these books should never see the light of day--and that if we are going to give fiction-writing a go, we should write a second book, where we haven't put ourselves as the main character.  (Full disclosure: My novella, Not a Novel Idea: A Tragicomedy in Four Acts, is one act away from completion.  I'm a main character, of course, and I know it should never be published.)

Obviously, some people do write themselves into their books very well (but god does that Everything is Illuminated movie have bad previews).  Nevertheless, Carter's was just one that kept me in it mostly because I liked thinking about how the book reflects on the real Stephen Carter (although I never had a class with him to get a first-hand impression).  Some things that were on display: his religion, his views on race (and the relations between the "darker nation" and the "pale" one), his perspective on (very petty) academic hierarchies that must surely exist at Yale, adultery, the law school deanship game, and the judicial appointments game. The protestations notwithstanding, I suspect this book will be of interest to those with connections to Elm Harbor--and those that care to peer into the mind of one of Yale Law School's few black faculty members.  Much is illuminated. 

Posted by Ethan Leib on August 14, 2005 at 05:35 PM in Books | Permalink

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Comments

It's interesting to hear your take on this book. I enjoyed the book but I, too, was not smitten with Prof. Carter as a novelist. [I felt the same way about Kermit Roosevelt's In the Shadow of the Law though Emperor was more "gripping" due to its plot/subject]

I would say, however, that reading fiction that is enjoyable yet obviously written by a non-novelist is not a terribly poor use of time. I've been told that reaction is all-too-common with most fiction, even fiction written by novelists.

Posted by: C | Aug 19, 2005 3:51:50 PM

Certainly, I could be the one with bad taste. Just offering an opinion.

And I thought I made clear that I was not hoping to publish my novella. Why did I spend time writing it (since I doubt I'll ever finish it)? Therapy, I suppose.

Posted by: Ethan Leib | Aug 15, 2005 9:55:35 PM

Just curious: what on earth is a person who "usually read[s] only a single work of fiction per year" doing writing a novella, much less hoping to publish one?

Posted by: justcurious | Aug 15, 2005 9:48:44 PM

Gee, and I thought it was a pretty good novel. I guess I have no taste.

Posted by: justareader | Aug 14, 2005 6:57:37 PM

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