Thursday, 24 June 2010

The virtues of libel

When we chronicle the struggle for literary freedom we too rarely give proper credit to the scandalous books, the salacious books, the truly outrageous books. We imagine that modern freedom was won by high-minded altruists devoted to human progress. A closer look reveals that much of the vast terrain on which literature and politics stand was in fact cleared by some dubious characters publishing books that no one, even the authors, considered respectable.

Robert Darnton has spent many years nudging us toward an understanding of this reality. Most recently he’s instructed us that 18th-century French publishing had a well-known category, libelles, which covered many books that delighted newly literate readers by undermining the authority of the monarchy and the Church.

Libelles helped create the demand for liberty. They were a major factor in the monarchy’s collapse. On shaky moral grounds, they founded French press freedom.
So writes Robert Fulford in the National Post.

It's interesting that these libelles continued to be written despite the combination of authors being subject to harsh punishment if caught AND being outside of copyright that would have helped the authors to earn pecuniary reward for their risk-taking.

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