Policing the Laws of Fiction
Despite the often heroic narratives of modernism’s campaign against antiobscenity laws, writers in the period were much more likely to run afoul of libel suits sometimes brought successfully by plaintiffs entirely unknown to them. This chapter surveys the surprisingly rich yet almost entirely unexplored intersection between literature and libel in the period by providing a broad overview of key cases and legal decisions. As writers increasingly experimented with the roman à clef, judges, juries, and eventually legislators in Great Britain struggled to maintain a clear legal conception of fiction—and the consequences were broad and far-reaching. Publishers demanded sometimes vast changes to manuscripts and the inherent conservatism of libel law became, in the words of one commentator, a “terror to authorship.” Following the particularly far-reaching case of E. Hulton & Co. v. Jones in 1909, the novel itself seemed to teeter on the edge of illegality as the courts proved almost incapable of meeting both the legal and aesthetic challenged posed by the roman à clef’s ability to broach the public sphere. The chapter concludes with a short digest of key acts and legal decisions in Britain and Ireland.
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