Pictures At An Execution / Edition 1

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Overview

This book is about murder - in life and in art - and about how we look at it and feel about it. At the center of Wendy Lesser's investigation is a groundbreaking legal case in which a federal court judge was asked to decide whether a gas chamber execution would be broadcast on public television. Our grim and seemingly endless fascination with murder gets its day in court as Lesser conducts us through the proceedings, pausing along the way to reflect on the circumstances of violent death in our culture. Her book, itself a murder mystery of sorts, circling suspensefully around a central point, is also a meditation on murder in a civilized society - what we make of it in law, morality, and art. Lesser narrates the trial with a sharp eye for detail and an absorbing sense of character. Questions that arise in the courtroom conjure other, broader ones why are we drawn to murder, as an act and as a spectacle? Who in a murder story are we drawn to - victim, murderer, detective? Is such interest, even pleasure, morally suspect? Lesser's reflections on these questions follow the culture in its danse macabre, from Norman Mailer's The Executioner's Song to the Jacobean play The Changeling, from Errol Morris's documentary The Thin Blue Line to Crime and Punishment, from Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the Murderer to Jim Thompson's The Killer Inside Me, from Weegee's photographs to television's movie of the week. Always anchored in the courtroom, where the question of murder as theater is being settled in immediate, human terms, this circle of thought widens outward to the increasingly blurred borderline between real and fictional murder, between event and story, between murder as news and murder as art. As gripping as its subject, Pictures at an Execution brings us face to face with our own most disturbing cultural impulses.
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Editorial Reviews

Boston Globe

Lesser's mesmerizing study about the spectatorship of murder...demonstrates why a televised execution cannot succeed as either deterrent or moral instruction. A significant addition to the literature of capital punishment.
— Robert Taylor

New Statesman & Society
Erudite but sensible culture crit.
Southern Humanities Review

Unusually compelling reading, for the book suggests that the persistent interest in murder is in fact one of the threads of our common humanity, a prospect we can hardly entertain with complacency. Why murder should draw us is the question Lesser explores through a multiplicity of lenses in a sensitive and intelligent manner, abjuring sensationalism. This is a provocative, well-conceived, and well-written book.
— James P. Hammersmith

Angolite

Her style is not dense but enviable, a joy to read, like listening to an old friend.
— Douglas Dennis

New York Newsday

What's most engaging about Pictures at an Execution is the way in which Lesser's intense involvement with her subject is mediated by a cool rationality that militates against sentimentality, cant, and disingenuousness. It's bracing to watch an active moral intelligence at work, ready to question anything, including the writer's own motives...We can read the book with pleasure, interest, and admiration.
— Francine Prose

Boston Globe - Robert Taylor
Lesser's mesmerizing study about the spectatorship of murder...demonstrates why a televised execution cannot succeed as either deterrent or moral instruction. A significant addition to the literature of capital punishment.
Southern Humanities Review - James P. Hammersmith
Unusually compelling reading, for the book suggests that the persistent interest in murder is in fact one of the threads of our common humanity, a prospect we can hardly entertain with complacency. Why murder should draw us is the question Lesser explores through a multiplicity of lenses in a sensitive and intelligent manner, abjuring sensationalism. This is a provocative, well-conceived, and well-written book.
Angolite - Douglas Dennis
Her style is not dense but enviable, a joy to read, like listening to an old friend.
New York Newsday - Francine Prose
What's most engaging about Pictures at an Execution is the way in which Lesser's intense involvement with her subject is mediated by a cool rationality that militates against sentimentality, cant, and disingenuousness. It's bracing to watch an active moral intelligence at work, ready to question anything, including the writer's own motives...We can read the book with pleasure, interest, and admiration.
Boston Globe
Lesser's mesmerizing study about the spectatorship of murder...demonstrates why a televised execution cannot succeed as either deterrent or moral instruction. A significant addition to the literature of capital punishment.
— Robert Taylor
Southern Humanities Review
Unusually compelling reading, for the book suggests that the persistent interest in murder is in fact one of the threads of our common humanity, a prospect we can hardly entertain with complacency. Why murder should draw us is the question Lesser explores through a multiplicity of lenses in a sensitive and intelligent manner, abjuring sensationalism. This is a provocative, well-conceived, and well-written book.
— James P. Hammersmith
Angolite
Her style is not dense but enviable, a joy to read, like listening to an old friend.
— Douglas Dennis
New York Newsday
What's most engaging about Pictures at an Execution is the way in which Lesser's intense involvement with her subject is mediated by a cool rationality that militates against sentimentality, cant, and disingenuousness. It's bracing to watch an active moral intelligence at work, ready to question anything, including the writer's own motives...We can read the book with pleasure, interest, and admiration.
— Francine Prose
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
``Murder literature forces us, or lures us, or invites us to identify with the murderer. It is an invitation we readily accept,'' declares Lesser in this alternately stimulating inquiry. Editor of The Threepenny Review , Lesser ( His Other Half: Men Looking at Women Though Art ) here takes as her theme why we are drawn to murder as real-life spectacle and in art. A 1991 San Francisco trial in which KQED-TV sued San Quentin prison's warden for denying the station permission to broadcast the execution of a convicted murderer forms the centerpiece of Lesser's meditation; she views capital punishment as state-sanctioned murder. Shuttling between fact and fiction, she offers a rarefied analysis of murder as depicted in a vast array of movies, novels, stories, mysteries, TV shows, true-crime books, plays and photojournalism. Ranging from Poe to Joe McGinniss and Norman Mailer, from Macbeth to Silence of the Lambs , her searching essay will appeal most to intellectual murder buffs. First serial to Los Angeles Times Magazine. (Jan.)
Library Journal
The germination of this book was a California lawsuit to televise the execution of Robert Alton Harris, but, like a crack in a china saucer, Pictures branches out to examine many more issues. Inevitably, questions bubble up about making the event a spectacle; crossing the threshold into the barbaric; and violating this or any inmate's privacy. Digging deeper, Lesser considers how much sympathy a murderer engenders. Do we sympathize partly because we can see ourselves in him and partly because he is dropped into the interminable justice system? If we read a story about a fictional murderer, what lessons do we learn about our capacity to feel, to be absorbed in the drama, to remain detached? For some answers, Lesser sifts through Poe, Turgenev, Didion, Fearing, among others, and reinforces her points with help from writers who have examined real-life murderers. Essential for those seriously contemplating their position on guilt, grief, punishment, responsibility, and cruelty. Lesser has produced a stunning effort that will leave questions echoing in readers' minds after the book is closed.-- Lisa Nussbaum, Euclid P.L., Ohio
Booknews
Pivoting on the legal case in which a federal court judge was asked to decide whether or not an execution in a gas chamber would be televised, Lesser explores our society's fascination with death, calling on both recent and earlier literature as well as current events. No index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674667365
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 7/21/1998
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 284
  • Sales rank: 1,250,401
  • Product dimensions: 0.60 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 9.21 (d)

Meet the Author

Wendy Lesser is editor of The Threepenny Review.
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