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Writing in Public

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

Trevor Ross

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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…

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.

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Writing in Public

Trevor Ross

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Reviews

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.

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.

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.

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Book Details

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Writing in Public

Part I. Copyright
1. Literature in the Public Domain
2. The Fate of Style in an Age of Intellectual Property

Part II. Defamation and Privacy
3. What Does

Acknowledgments

Introduction: Writing in Public

Part I. Copyright
1. Literature in the Public Domain
2. The Fate of Style in an Age of Intellectual Property

Part II. Defamation and Privacy
3. What Does Literature Publicize?
4. How Criticism Became Privileged Speech: The Case of Carr v. Hood (1808)

Part III. Seditious Libel
5. Literature and the Freedom of Mind

Epilogue: Unacknowledged Legislators

Notes
Index

Author Bio
Featured Contributor

Trevor Ross

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.