Cover for EBERLY: Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres

Citizen Critics

Literary Public Spheres

How four rancorous censorship debates changed the way we talk about controversial books

The condition of our public discussions about literary and cultural works has much to say about the condition of our democracy and the author argues for more public discourse--in classrooms, newspapers, magazines, etc. to reclaim a public voice on national artistic matters. In this revealing study of the links among literature, rhetoric, and democracy, Rosa A. Eberly explores the public debate generated by amateur and professional readers about four controversial literary works: two that were censored in the United States and two that created conflict because they were not censored.

In Citizen Critics Eberly compares the outrage sparked by the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer with the relative quiescence that greeted the much more violent and sexually explicit content of Bret Easton Ellis's American Psychoand Andrea Dworkin's Mercy. Through a close reading of letters to the editor, reviews, media coverage, and court cases, Eberly shows how literary critics and legal experts defused censorship debates by shifting the focus from content to aesthetics and from social values to publicity. By asserting their authority to pass judgments--thus denying the authority of citizen critics--these professionals effectively removed the discussion from literary public spheres.

A passionate advocate for treating reading as a public and rhetorical enterprise rather than solely as a private one, Eberly suggests the potential impact a work of literature may have on the social polity if it is brought into public forums for debate rather than removed to the exclusive rooms of literary criticism. Eberly urges educators to use their classrooms as protopublic spaces in which students can learn to make the transition from private reader to public citizen.

"A well-written text that contribues much to public sphere studies. It offers needed case studies of actual citizen deliberation, which reveals how people may interact across multiple publics. Focusing on literary works, Citizen Critics connects cultural texts to political discourse, showing how cultural texts need not induce passivity in their audiences but instead may activate a political consciousness." -- Robert Asen, Augmentation and Advocacy

Rosa A. Eberly is an associate professor of communication arts and sciences and English at Penn State University. She is coeditor of A Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy and The Sage Handbook of Rhetoric.

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