Covering criticism of English-language literature from Beowulf
to Louise Erdrich, this hefty tome is a compilation of signed bibliographic essays that treat critical writings on a wide range of writers and topics. Among the 247 scholars and critics who served as advisers or contributors to this ambitious project are such noted figures as Catherine Belsey, Malcolm Bradbury, Trevor Griffiths, and Norman Page. Guiding the selection of subjects for entries were two principle criteria: "(a) the existence of a reasonably substantial body of discussion on the subject, particularly in book form, and (b) evidence of a strong current interest in the subject."
Of the 573 entries, 334 are devoted to writers. Most are major figures, but the inclusion of several relatively unknown writers, such as Olaudah Equiano and Harriet Jacobs, is surprising, particularly in light of the fairly slim coverage of living women writers. The remaining entries are topical, focusing on literary devices, genres, movements, themes, critical theories or schools, and the literatures of particular countries, geographic areas, periods, or ethnic groups. Examples of topical entries include Allegory, Bloomsbury Group, Caribbean Literature, Reader-Response Theory, and Sonnet. Entries are arranged in dictionary format, with authors and topics appearing in the same alphabetical sequence. Entries are at least a page in length, and each begins with a bibliography (ranging from five to more than twenty titles), followed by an essay of descriptive and evaluative commentary on those works. Most entries are true essays, with a fully integrated discussion of the studies identified. Some, however, are more akin to annotated bibliographies since they simply describe each title in separate paragraphs.
The editor notes that the contributors followed certain editorial guidelines in selecting the books and articles featured, but, unfortunately, he neglects to indicate what they were. Thus, the user is left to wonder if these are considered to be the most significant studies or merely a representative sampling. Some entries list only titles published during the last three decades, while others also include earlier publications. In addition, some contributors focus only on critical studies, while others note a wider variety of sources, such as biographies, handbooks, and bibliographies.
At the beginning of the volume are two useful features: an alphabetical list of all entries and a thematic list that organizes the entries into 39 broad categories, such as Canadian Literature, Fiction: American, and Women's Writing. While not totally reliable (Louisa May Alcott is omitted from the "American Literature: Writers" category), the thematic list provides valuable subject access. In addition, an author index covers the writers of the books and articles discussed in the entries, and a general index includes the authors and anonymous works that are the subjects of entries and other literary figures discussed within entries.
Due to the scholarly nature of this compendium, it is most appropriate for academic and research libraries. An excellent guide for serious researchers, it will be especially useful for graduate students in English who are preparing for preliminary examinations and want to review the important literature on a particular author or topic.