Pathfinder in the literary maze

The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature
May 2, 1997

The first edition of this book advertised itself as "the new authority", presumably in contrast with Margaret Drabble's Oxford Companion (1985), the traditional leader in this genre. The present volume is mellower and feels it has less to prove, while still claiming that it is the most "up to date" and "stimulating" guide available. Its confidence in itself is reflected in the abandonment of the introduction to "Contemporary approaches to literature" in favour of extra essays by a wide range of authors. These are arranged chronologically and by genre, and vary considerably in style and theoretical preference. Some deepen and update the study of canonical material, incorporating perspectives drawn from deconstruction or the history of the book, while others explore developing fields of literature such as postcolonial writing and contemporary drama.

Though I must declare an interest, I was disappointed by the lack of reference to textual scholarship and bibliography; the most I could find was a discussion of editing Shakespeare. There was, however, a pleasing amount of material about the importance of the book trade within literary culture and changes in literacy and reading habits.

The reference section has also improved: gone are the clutter of photographs, the limp chronology and the bizarre selection of topics such as tartan, pubs, and archery. A general revision has updated the bibliographies and improved the writing, which is mostly crisp, thorough, and focused. The avowedly polemical tone of some entries will continue to dismay readers who dislike any kind of "political" commentary in reference works. There are too many misprints, some missing links ("Imperialism", for example), but most of the glaring absences have been addressed.

Like dictionaries and encyclopedias, the form of a literary guide exemplifies the postmodern emphasis on difference and perpetual deferral: one is always being led elsewhere in the labyrinth.

As Linda Ruth Williams explains, the Bloomsbury Guide is a creature of its age, asking through its genre essays and references "who decides the patterns of literary history, and what has made them decide that". This book works within and extends the traditional map of what constitutes English literature, yet also explores the possibility and implications of subverting or overthrowing it.

Antony Atkins is lecturer in English, University of Reading.

The Bloomsbury Guide to English Literature

Editor - Marion Wynne-Davies
ISBN - 0 7425 2267 7 and 511956
Publisher - Bloomsbury
Price - £25.00 and £12.99
Pages - 1,101

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