Writing In Public celebrates the art and intelligence of essays, online and in print.

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On literature, lies, and state power

On literature, lies, and state power

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Boris Kelly reads the WikiLeaks controversy as a modern-day lottery of human sacrifice and state secrets @ Overland Journal.  
In 1948, the New Yorker published a short story by Shirley Jackson called ‘The lottery’. It is the story of the public stoning of a woman in a small town in Vermont. The stoning, however, is not the result of any crime committed by the woman. Two male elders are charged with the responsibility of organising a lottery in which all the citizens of the town are compulsorily entered in the full knowledge that one of them will be required to forfeit their life. Jackson infuses the conduct of this strange, democratic ritual with a perfunctory efficiency. The elders are keen to have the matter decided and executed before sunset, as if it were a bothersome town hall meeting that everyone would prefer to do without but was essential to the good governance of the town. It is clear that the townspeople do not know why these stonings take place and Jackson gives no clear indication of motive other than some oblique references to agricultural rituals that may have been observed by the community in years long gone. That one of the presiding elders is the owner of the local coal company suggests that the story is set in the industrial era but the precise time is not specified. It is clear, however, that the ritual has lost whatever meaning or function it may have had but has continued to be conducted as a matter of empty ceremony. Once the lot is drawn the assembled, which includes women and children, set upon the condemned with efficient alacrity.

The story appeared in The New Yorker on 26 June, having been written by Jackson only a month before publication, and the response to it was unprecedented and sensational. Hundreds of readers immediately cancelled their subscription to the magazine and Jackson began receiving volumes of mail, most of it castigatory and indignant but a disturbing sample of which expressed a desire to know where the correspondent could witness such an event. Many readers were befuddled and were upset with Jackson for writing a story they struggled to understand. As is so often the case with art that troubles the spirit of the times, the artist has little idea of the profound impact the work will have once it enters the public domain. Jackson later said that her motivation for writing the story was to explore a latent cruelty in people but it seems clear that the middle-class, educated readers who took offence at the publication of the story did so largely because they were outraged that a writer could depict small town America, the mythic heart of the nation, in such a way. They were deeply disturbed by Jackson’s representation of society and did not wish to hear it.
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