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Eighteenth-Century Studies 40.1 (2006) 116-120
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Biographers for Hire
Paula R. Backscheider
The publication of series has recently become an industry. The Cambridge, Blackwell's, and Oxford "Companions," the Pickering and Chatto editions, the Palgrave-Macmillan "English Dramatists" and "Literary Lives," "casebooks," and many other commissioned books pour onto our heads. The problem for readers is that there are considerable differences in purpose, target audiences, and editorial principles. Some Companions, for instance, have many, many short descriptive entries that are designed to be a quick education or review for, basically, non-specialists. Others have lengthy, cutting edge, even revisionary essays that may stimulate and pleasantly challenge true experts but leave some readers to seek elsewhere for, say, a summary of the most recent scholarship and lines of critical inquiry on Daniel Defoe's novels.
Some of these series tempt hack work because of restrictive space limitations, cookbook guidelines, and lack of referees; some all but demand summaries of familiar information presented in serviceable, dull prose. More commonly, it seems to me, contributors are asked to write something they probably wouldn't but, once doing it, enjoy and even find it inspiring. Few of us would choose, I think, to write an essay summarizing for novices Defoe's essays on the Peace of Utrecht or set out to write a book demonstrating how much fun it is to read eighteenth-century novels (the latter something I am supposed to be doing as I sit here writing this). We are told these books will be useful, will sell well, and that publication is guaranteed and we can do them quickly; that makes them tempting. Another motive for writing essays in series is that they can often be longer than journal articles, and many of us find trying to include good textual interpretation, cultural studies contextualizing, and, say, feminist theory within the space limits of journals impossible. And it is flattering to be invited to contribute to a series (although the sheer number is decreasing what the "honor" means considerably). In the process, contributors to the series become inspired; they bring years of sophisticated thought and understanding of the literature and the period to bear on their assignment. They write something that is among their best work, and—it is swallowed in the ocean of series publications. Their stunningly original essays, like Robert Markley's "'I have now done with my island, and all manner of discourse about it'" in the Blackwell Companion to the Eighteenth-Century Novel and Culture (2005), is largely unread and does not influence the field as it should. Those who would find it provocative and exciting never know it exists. A book, which is really a new history of a genre, is ignored because assumed to be a summary of what experts know. And, of course, there is the more common result: the publication will waver wildly between insightful and exciting sections and drab rehashes.
The books I am reviewing, P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens's A Political Biography of Daniel Defoe and John J. Richetti's The Life of Daniel Defoe, with [End Page 116] a glance at the five-volume Religious and Didactic Writings published by Pickering and Chatto, are good examples of the effect of series on authors and knowledge. Defoe biographers always have a hard time. Defoe lived a long time, he was secretive and tricky, and, even if we accept the Furbank and Owens reduced canon, he wrote a lot. Biographers always hit a stretch of his writings that earn the wonder and respect of eighteenth-century specialists and try the soul—and every other faculty. For many, it's the poems with their dreary allusions and fustian ambitions. For most it...