In what can only be called a genuine intellectual adventure, Russell Berman raises fundamental questions long ignored by literary scholars: Why does literature command our attention at all? Why would society want to cultivate a sphere of activity devoted to the careful study of literary ﬁction? Written as a tonic to what he calls the debilitating cultural relativism of contemporary literary studies, Fiction Sets You Free advances the innovative argument that literature and capitalism, rather than representing merely commercialization, actually belie a long and positive association: literary autonomy is a central part of modern Western culture, thoroughly intertwined with political democracy and free-market capitalism.
Berman particularly challenges the issue of periodization, in which current scholarship emphasizes historical context over the integrity of a literary work and thus neglects the capacity of literature to remain interesting in other times and contexts. By moving from the origins of human language through the development of written alphabets and sacred texts, eventually probing the role of public literature in the creation of community, Berman elegantly and cogently surveys the intellectual landscape of Western societies. By giving us the license to dream and envision other worlds, literature sets us free.
"Fiction Sets You Free is a startingly ambitious redefintion of literary politics in terms of the cultural theory developed in Berman's previous book."—The Times Literary Supplement
“Russell Berman has ﬁred an important and timely shot across the bow of some of the most deeply entrenched shibboleths of current scholarly discussion in the humanities. Fiction Sets You Free presents a forcefully argued, coherent, and well-informed discussion of issues that today’s humanities should confront, primarily because it prompts us to examine what are often terribly unexamined assumptions. Those who will respond to the book in order to challenge it will benefit enormously—they will be forced to argue and reason, rather than simply assert, and that can only be to the good.”—Vincent Pecora, Gordon B. Hinkley Professor of British Literature and Culture, University of Utah, and author, Secularization and Cultural Criticism: Religion, Nation, and Modernity and Nations and Identities: Classic Readings
“I’m impressed by the penetrating intelligence of Fiction Sets You Free as well as by Berman’s erudition, which he nevertheless wears lightly. He doesn’t feel compelled to ﬁll his manuscript with lengthy—and distracting—footnotes. The authority that inheres in his writing comes not from his citations but from the force and credibility of his arguments.”—David Gross, professor of history, University of Colorado–Boulder, and author, Lost Time: On Remembering and Forgetting in Late Modern Culture
“Fiction Sets You Free is an eloquent, impassioned, and compelling defense of the role of literature in history. Berman demonstrates that what makes literature unique is not its reﬂection of the culture that produced it, but that it provides an alternative to empirical fact, putting forward the possibilities latent in any historical situation. In transcending empiricism, literature is the discourse of the exception, of what might have been rather than what is or was. This is a unique and brilliant book, one that will genuinely alter critical thinking.”—Marjorie Perloff, author, Wittgenstein’s Ladder and Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy
Why Literature Matters
1. Periodization and the Canon
2. Human Origins and Literary Beginnings
3. Writing and Heroism
4. Literacy and Autonomy
5. The Epic and the Individual
6. Religion and Writing
7. The Democracy of Literature
8. Imagination and Economy