Cover for EBERLY: Citizen Critics: Literary Public Spheres

Citizen Critics

Literary Public Spheres

Four rancorous censorship debates that 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 state of our democracy. Classrooms, newspapers, magazines, Internet forums, and many other places grant citizens a place to hold public discourses—and claim a voice on national artistic matters.

Rosa A. Eberly looks at four censorship controversies where professionals asserted their authority to deny citizen critics a voice—and effectively removed discussion of literature from the public sphere. 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 Psycho and 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—and undercut the authority of citizen critics—by shifting the focus from content to aesthetics and from social values to publicity.


"A well-written text that contributes 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, author of Invoking the Invisible Hand: Social Security and the Privatization Debates


Rosa A. Eberly is an associate professor of rhetoric 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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