The problem “What is literature?” has no generally accepted solution in literary studies. Through a new account of the origins of the modern concept of literature, Trevor Ross provides a highly original explanation for the lack of an answer, namely, that indefinability must be considered one of literature’s constitutive attributes and that it thereby acquires a prime function within a modern, democratic concept of the public.1

Writing in Public follows up on Ross’s magisterial Making of the English Literary Canon (1998), which had a similar chronological focus, exploring developments going back in literary and cultural history and coming to a head, in Ross’s argument, in the eighteenth century. That book documented “the shift in canon formation from production to consumption” in a trajectory toward the birth of a “literary experience . . . as an isolated and autonomous activity” (Ross 1998...

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