Professor Burke goes back into the classroom this week, marking the start of my tenth school year during which I have balanced two professional lives – one as a legal academic, one as a crime fiction author. I probably spend more time and handwringing than I should pondering how these two lives fit together. One attempt to explain the coupling follows, in a short piece I wrote recently as a guest blogger for the wonderful Powell’s Books. Professor Burke thought y’all might enjoy it:
I went to a Book Blogger Conference at this year’s Book Expo of America convention. One vocal blogger (is there any other kind?) let me know that she only reads memoirs and “other non-fiction” because she is interested in “issues” and “needed books to matter.”
I let her assumption about the accuracy of memoirs slide. As a law professor who writes not merely fiction, but genre novels to boot, I was far more concerned about making the case that fiction – even low-brow, beach-book crime fiction – can “matter.”
For my day job, I write law review articles – hundreds of pages with still more hundreds of footnotes. Law review articles are supposed to be meticulously researched and relentlessly thorough probes of important and novel legal issues. They are intended to “matter.”
It is hard to know whether an individual piece of legal scholarship has impact, but one measure is its frequency of citation by courts or other legal scholars. To give you an idea of the numbers, Cass Sunstein, the most cited legal scholar in the country and now Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, was cited in eight judicial opinions and 927 law review articles in the past year. Yours truly has been cited in three judicial opinions and 208 law review articles – in her entire career.
In contrast, a modest print run for a novel with a major publisher is 35,000 copies. In short, more people read Michael Connelly than Cass Sunstein.
Of course, it’s not just the size of the audience that “matters.” I happen to be interested in the criminal justice system, which is undeniably shaped by public perception. And those perceptions are shaped in America not by law review articles or other works of non-fiction, but by popular culture.
In a world where a major cable news network allows Nancy Grace to preach fear six nights a week to an audience of more than 1.3 million, entertainment may be a sane commentator’s best hope of shaping public views about our criminal justice system.
I have written law review articles about the unseen, unreviewable effects of prosecutorial discretion, but I have certainly had more impact on the popular conception of a prosecutor’s role by showing Portland Deputy District Attorney Samantha Kincaid employ – both for good and bad ends – nearly limitless charging and plea bargaining authority.
I have written about the problem of wrongful convictions, but my writing has surely shaped public opinion more through fictional (but realistic) depictions of high-pressure interrogations, flawed eyewitness identification procedures, overreliance on questionable informant testimony, and police investigations shaped by tunnel vision.
As a writer, I believe in showing, not telling. My job is to spin a good yarn, not lecture. But I nevertheless believe that, as a lawyer who cares about equity and accuracy in the criminal justice system, I can defend the genre in which I write. Books can entertain and yet nevertheless educate.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Have you have learned something surprising from a so-called “beach book”? When has an entertaining book also “mattered”?