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9781421426327
9781421426310
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v2.1 Reference

Writing in Public

Literature and the Liberty of the Press in Eighteenth-Century Britain

What is the role of literary writing in democratic society?

Building upon his previous work on the emergence of "literature," Trevor Ross offers a history of how the public function of literature changed as a result of developing press freedoms during the period from 1760 to 1810. Writing in Public examines the laws of copyright, defamation, and seditious libel to show what happened to literary writing once certain forms of discourse came to be perceived as public and entitled to freedom from state or private control.

Ross argues that—with liberty of expression becoming entrenched as a national value—the legal constraints on speech had to be reconceived, becoming less a set of prohibitions on its content than an arrangement for managing the public sphere. The public was free to speak on any subject, but its speech, jurists believed, had to follow certain ground rules, as formalized in laws aimed at limiting private ownership of culturally significant works, maintaining civility in public discourse, and safeguarding public deliberation from the coercions of propaganda. For speech to be truly free, however, there had to be an enabling exception to the rules.

Since the late eighteenth century, Ross suggests, the role of this exception has been performed by the idea of literature. Literature is valued as the form of expression that, in allowing us to say anything and in any form, attests to our liberty. Yet, paradoxically, it is only by occupying no definable place within the public sphere that literature can remain as indeterminate as the public whose self-reinvention it serves.

About the Author

Trevor Ross teaches English at Dalhousie University. He is the author of The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century.

Reviews

"Writing in Public offers a brilliant synthesis of a massive set of interrelated topics: how the public role of literature gradually and radically shifted; its legal, social and literary causes; and its long-term implications for the public. For those grappling with the question of what literature's public functions were or were supposed to do, Ross offers both an insightful and provoking guide."

- Andrew Benjamin Bricker, Ghent University - Review of English Studies

Endorsements

"Trevor Ross provides a lucid and trenchant account of the rise of the notion of the public. He argues for the productivity of the incoherence of the notion of the public, tasked as it is with preserving individual liberties and simultaneously with developing restrictions. Ross shows how consequential it has been for law, literature, and journalism that the public could speak about virtually anything but only under continually evolving protocols that continually reworked the lines of division between public and private—that is, between what the public had a right to know and what individuals could claim as unavailable for dissemination. Writing in Public is a major and timely contribution to our understanding of what it means to live in a public world."

- Frances Ferguson, The University of Chicago

"Writing in Public charts how contemporary ideas about literature’s nature, value, and role in public life came into being in eighteenth-century Britain in conjunction with new understandings of the law’s role in protecting property, preserving a public domain, and incentivizing expressive diversity. This is a wide-ranging, original, and meticulously researched book. I will be thinking about Ross’s redescription of liberal modernity for some time, not just because of the insights he offers into eighteenth-century and Romantic-period writing but also because he illuminates so many of our current perplexities about the limits and power of public speech."

- Deidre Shauna Lynch, Harvard University

"Writing in Public is required reading for anyone interested in the literary and legal histories of eighteenth-century England. In this groundbreaking study, Trevor Ross brilliantly delineates the large sweep of writers and writing while taking the reader deeply into the critical events that shaped both free speech and literature as these categories emerge from the Enlightenment."

- George Justice, Arizona State University

"A terrific book that opens up significant new vistas. Ross has taken a range of texts and historical events, many of them hiding in plain sight, some entirely overlooked until now, and has organized them into a penetrating and original analysis of the meaning of the public and of literature's public role. This concise, elegant, tightly argued study will appeal not only to students of eighteenth-century literature but also to legal scholars and historians of democratic culture."

- Simon Stern, University of Toronto

"Through a learned study of legal decisions on copyright and libel during the eighteenth century, Trevor Ross sheds important new light on the interconnection between the idea of literature and the emergence of modern democracy."

- Nicholas Hudson, The University of British Columbia

"Writing in Public makes an ambitious argument with ramifications both for our reading of eighteenth-century literature and our contemporary understanding of literature as a form of public speech. One key strength of Ross's book is the way that highly specific examples are engagingly narrated and then open out into broad historical claims... [S]cholars in all areas of eighteenth century studies, as well as historians of free speech and the law, will find it a valuable resource."

- Hannah Doherty Hudson - Eighteenth-Century Fiction

"What Ross styles 'a cultural history of ideas about literature's place in the public sphere,' is timely and worth reading... This strikingly original volume is largely juridical; while Ben Jonson, Daniel Defoe, and Alexander Pope have their cameos, Writing in Public devotes itself to jurists and their legal reasoning as they debated intellectual property, perpetual copyright, the liberty of criticism, seditious libel, and so on."

- University of Toronto Quarterly

9781421426310 : writing-in-public-ross
Hardback
312 Pages
$54.95 USD
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