The Book Has Two Faces: Trevor Ross’s Writing in Public: Literature and the Liberty of the Press in Eighteenth-Century Britain
This review of Trevor Ross’s Writing in Public: Literature and the Liberty of the Press in Eighteenth Century Britain is part of a symposium in Critical Analysis of Law: An International & Interdisciplinary Law Review. Ross’s book traces the evolution of laws regulating public discourse after the decline of English print licensing. Ross argues that the development of the public sphere in eighteenth century Britain left literature in a strange, contradictory position: simultaneously central to civic society and wholly apart from it. This claim has its contemporary counterparts. It echoes contemporary debates about what literature is “for” among critics and philosophers. It also echoes debates about literature within contemporary free speech law, where Robert Bork and others have argued that literature should not receive protection because it is not sufficiently political, while literature’s defenders have argued for its protection with varying plausibility. Literature’s relationship to public discourse continues to bedevil us, and Ross offers a stimulating account of how this might have come to be.