Between 1960 and 1985 the British Council's "Writers and Their Work" series, originally published by Longman, came to occupy a unique position in academic publishing.
Running to well over 200 volumes and written by figures as diverse as T. S. Eliot, J. B. Priestley, L. C. Knights and Bonamy Dobree, these wire-stitched booklets of between 32 and 64 pages formed an inexpensive introductory guide to British and Irish literature (Americans were excluded) which, though targeted at the general reader, often proved invaluable to sixth-formers and undergraduates grateful for the feats of compression their authors accomplished. Now that the series has been revived and extended by Northcote House, one is glad to see an extensive backlist being made available at £2.99 each.
The editorial policy governing the new titles (which are £3-£4 dearer) appears to be deliberately thin: notes are kept to a minimum, spelling is modernised and the selective bibliographies are well annotated. What the series has always done best is to offer provisional judgements on contemporary writing, sometimes several years in advance of a book-length critical study, and it is pleasing to see this excellent tradition maintained in Kiernan Ryan's study of Ian McEwan and Elizabeth Maslen's Doris Lessing.
But what seems to have been lost during the ten-year absence of "Writers and Their Work" - and this was certainly one of the main strengths of the series in its previous incarnation - is the original reluctance to mystify the lay reader with the language of professional academic criticism, particularly historicist and psychoanalytic jargon.
This may simply reflect an editorial decision to target newly commissioned titles at undergraduate readers, but it indicates how far the purpose of the series has shifted since its initial conception.
Nevertheless, there are some genuinely outstanding commentaries among a relatively low amount of chaff. John Lucas's volume on John Clare is a model of what a book of this length should be: deeply readable, passionately excited about its subject and evidently written out of a hard-earned familiarity with Clare's poetry, letters and fragments of autobiography. Lorna Sage's study of Angela Carter is equally impressive, combining sharp engagement with Carter's fiction and substantial quotations from her previously unpublished correspondence. It is bound to be a key reference point for all students of Carter and their teachers.
There are, inevitably, gaps in the revised catalogue. Wyndham Lewis is in, yet Ezra Pound is out; and since Mary Wollstonecraft is included, William Cobbett should be there too. Considered as a whole, though, this series promises to outshine its own previously high reputation.
Andrew Biswell is researching a PhD on Anthony Burgess.
Author - Annabel Patterson
ISBN - 0 7463 0715 2
Publisher - Northcote House
Price - £5.99
Pages - `82