- Useful Tool & Pleasurable Diversion
The literary encyclopedia can be among both the most useful tools and the most pleasurable diversions of literary scholarship. One can use it as a reference or refresher on dates and miscellany, as an introduction to a new project, or as an aid for undergraduates; one can equally (or, in my case, much more frequently) use it for aimless free association, paging from entry to entry guided only by whim. This seemingly trivial use of a painstaking work of research is actually at the heart of what makes literary studies so rewarding: lightheartedly exploring all of literature (or at least a sizable portion) without a clear goal in mind, one may come upon the wisp of an idea, pursue it, and perhaps even run it down.
Those who share this dissolute hobby will be delighted by The Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Fiction; those who tend to use reference materials for their intended purpose will scarcely be less pleased. The work aims to be, as editor Brian W. Shaffer writes in his introduction, "the most comprehensive single-resource mapping of this vast, rich, spectacularly heterogeneous field yet undertaken"; if it is not this, I have not come across the work that is. Its three volumes, respectively covering British and Irish, American, and world fiction, collectively contain more than 500 entries, covering most of the twentieth-century writers in English whom one might need to research, as well as important movements, genres, and trends. The entries for minor writers are impressively thorough, while those for major ones are exhaustive; that for George Orwell, for instance, includes a detailed biography, discussions of each of his major works and his political beliefs, an assessment [End Page 252] of his literary and political reputation, and a judicious consideration of his strengths, weaknesses, and impact. Furthermore, thanks to the third volume, such extensive entries are not limited to the major writers of the Anglo-Irish-American canon. My first test case for the depth of the world literature volume was New Zealand writer Janet Frame, whose entry takes up four pages of fairly small type.
This combination of breadth and depth is matched by the encyclopedia's roster of contributors, which is extensive; the list of contributors for volume III alone is sixteen pages long. Contributors range from graduate students to professors, a few of whom are renowned experts in their fields, such as Margot Norris (my graduate advisor, for full disclosure) and Patricia Waugh. The diversity of contributors comes across most clearly in the entries devoted to broader topics and themes, such as "Queer Modernism," "The City in Fiction," "Welsh Fiction in English," and many others. Unlike the author entries, these topic entries are often argumentative as well as expository; Shaffer acknowledges this, but writes in his introduction that such arguments come "never at the expense of coverage and balance." Shaffer's claim is true in general but not always—there remain claims that will raise some eyebrows, such as the casual (and superfluous) description, in the "Campus Novels" entry, of Lucky Jim as "overrated." Because of their argumentative nature, I found the subject entries to be much more mixed in quality than the author entries. The problem is that the form of the encyclopedia entry necessarily simplifies such arguments, given the need for brevity and definitiveness. For instance, the evolution of Kipling's reputation has been far from linear—even if one started with the postcolonial critique, one would then have to discuss the backlash against that critique and the backlash against the backlash—but in the "Edwardian Fiction" entry we are merely told that critics have succeeded in "exonerating Kipling of the charge of simplistic jingoism." (Kipling himself does not have an entry in the encyclopedia.) Students should be encouraged to sharpen their critical thinking on entries of this sort especially, rather than merely accepting them as the settled opinion in the field.
In general, both the selections and their relative depth are...