Theorists of censorship have alerted us to the multiple ways that regulation, overt or tacit, has influenced speech and thought. I am concerned with an opposite phenomenon, in what happens to literature once certain forms and features of discourse are seen as public and therefore entitled to legal protection and freedom from state or private control. This is the subject of my current research project, entitled Writing in Public: Literature and the Liberty of the Press in Eighteenth-Century Britain. In it, I argue that the liberalization of public expression, and the gradual ascendancy of democratic norms, necessitated a redefinition of literature's social functions. The long revolution for free expression coincided with a broad reorganization of discourse in which, among other changes, literature was displaced as a vehicle of knowledge and opinion by newer modes of public speech even as its value in expressing personal and cultural meaning was reaffirmed. Among the questions I address are the following: how has it come to be that satire is treated as fair comment rather than defended under the category of artistic freedom? why do parodies enjoy both privilege and priority over rights of ownership, so that one can write a parody but not a sequel? why has freedom for the arts been bought at the cost of their political efficacy? why are stylistic innovations celebrated but not rewarded? My aim is not to propose answers these questions from a present perspective but rather to examine the arguments that originally gave rise to these legal and economic arrangements, and to suggest how choices made two centuries ago have shaped our thinking about literature as a public discourse.
This project is the second instalment of a projected trilogy dealing with how, during the eighteenth century, the emergence of a modern category of "literature" displaced older rhetorical accounts of verbal art. The first work of the trilogy, dealing with the changing ways in which the English valued their own literature, appeared in 1998 under the title The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century. The second work shifts the focus from the value of literature to its public uses. The third work, tentatively entitled Interpreting English Literature: Origins of an Idea, will examine how literary works began to be prized as inexhaustibly rich in signification and marked as much by a universal meaningfulness as by an insuperable otherness.
- The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century (1998)
- "The Fate of Style in an Age of Intellectual Property," ELH 80 (2013): 747-782.
- “The Changing Public Functions of Literature, from Early to Late Modernity,” in Imitatio-Inventio: The Rise of ‘Literature’ from Early to Classic Modernity, ed. Mihaela Irimia and Dragos Ivana (Bucharest: Institutul Cultural Roman, 2010)
- Entries for “Author”, “Canon” and “Literature,” inThe Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Literature, ed. David Scott Kastan (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)
- “What’s Been Lost,” English Studies in Canada 29 (2003): 57-66.
- “Translation and the Canonical Text,” Studies in the Literary Imagination 33.2 (Fall, 2000): 1-21.
- “The Emergence of 'Literature’: Making and Reading the English Canon in the Eighteenth Century,” ELH 63 (1996): 397-422.
- “Copyright and the Invention of Tradition,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 26 (1992): 1-27.
- SSHRC Research Grant, 2001-04.
- American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies/James L. Clifford Prize for best article on an eighteenth-century subject, 1993, for "Copyright and the Invention of Tradition."