The Literature of the Prison Cell

Image of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon via WikiCommons

Image of Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon via WikiCommons

Jeffrey Archer is in town on March 22, in conversation with Jennifer Byrne at the Collins Street Baptist Church. Having just penned a new book, Only Time Will Tell, Archer is a prolific author of page-turners (two dozen of them, which have sold 250 million copies worldwide). He’s also, famously, a peer, a former leading Conservative politician, and a former prisoner. Archer wrote of his time in prison in his three-volume memoir, A Prison Diary. Unfortunately, none of his books are on this list of jailbird books (or this one).

Prison literature has long been a thriving genre. It often tends toward lurid portrayals of bestial cruelty, like Billy Hayes' Midnight Express. It’s often combined with other genres, like crime, obviously, but also war literature (Bridge on the River Kwai), suspense (Silence of the Lambs) or in Holocaust narratives (Primo Levi’s If This is a Man). Stephen King excels at it, boasting in his list of published works the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption and the six-volume serialised novel, The Green Mile. Filmmakers love prison narratives because they’re easy to shoot.

It might be that a big part of prison literature’s fascination is its simultaneous appeal to our senses of outrage and voyeurism. It engages us in a drama of violence, will, freedom, justice, morality, politics and social organisation. The more brutal a prison regime, the more vivid the response from writers - think Charles Dickens' Little Dorritt or Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. The French seem to have excelled at prison lit - think Dumas' Count of Monte Cristo, Albert Camus' Outsider and Henri Charrière’s Papillon. The genre was also a formative one in the birth of Australian literature, from Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural life to Gregory David Roberts' Shantaram.

Prison literature is also a motherlode for writers of more ‘serious’ literature. Poets have mused on the subject - most notably with Oscar Wilde’s ‘Ballad of Reading Gaol’. Robert Lowell’s ‘Memories of West Street and Lepke’ reflects on his time in prison in the Bronx as a conscientious objector. Jose Saramago’s Blindness is a classic of an incarceration of sorts, but the classics of the genre would have to be Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Jean Genet’s Miracle of the Rose.

Can you add to the list? Add a comment below if we’ve overlooked any classics of the prison literature genre.

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