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Brevity is the soul of lit

July 8, 2013

Choosing new entries to stand alongside the established canon in a reference work heading towards its centenary can never be easy. Choosing what to add to the Concise edition of such a venerable work, after first nearly halving its length, is double the conundrum. The fourth edition of The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature has just been released online. So how do you choose what is likely to accompany readers into the new century, for short entries displaying neatly on ipads and tablets and ereaders, or even on Google Glass?

The radical decision to include authors younger than the editor for the last edition-but-one of the full The Oxford Companion to English Literature in 1985 opened a huge new field of possibilities, and yet the subject of one of the new entries - Diana Athill - is old enough to have been included in Paul Harvey’s very first Companion in 1932. Her career at André Deutsch spanned the lives of John Updike, V. S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer and Jean Rhys, but it is for herself, and for her personal memoirs, including Somewhere Towards the End (2008), about late old age, that she was chosen. She started to publish these frank and funny backward glances as the twentieth century she was born into (during the First World War) turned into the twenty-first. Perhaps, like Mary Wollstonecraft, she might have enjoyed the friendship of the scandalously frank Mary Hays?

Sometimes the task of identifying something new is made easier by the rapid passing of a trend – a label is easier to stick on something that seems to be staying put on the shelf where it has been placed. Such was the case with the chemical generation whose individual exponents may already have moved beyond their label.

In that case the pieces in the kaleidoscope may have paused in a particular pattern we can name, before it is lost to the next twist, but we may also want to capture the lens through which we see literature: particularly in the case of the green patterns outlined by ecocriticism. This also takes us back to the old - made new and contemporary - genre of nature writing. Many new entries intertwine with existing ones, for example diaries and travel writing which may also be the location for observations on the natural world and evocations of particular landscapes. There will be overlaps, of course: new voices will also be part of old traditions, so the run of striking poetry on our sources of water, our rivers and oceans, and the springs which form them brought forward figures such as Philip Gross for his The Water Table.

Awards also highlight the appearance of good new work, and particularly the new lists of poetry prizes, introduced for the first time in the seventh edition of the main Companion, to take an equal place with the Nobels and the (almost always) novels of the Man Booker prize and the fiction Pulitzers. So it is heartening to have our choices confirmed by the judges – new entries for the American poet Jorie Graham and the Anglo-Welsh poet Deryn Rees-Jones were ratified by their joint appearance in the T. S. Eliot Prize shortlist this year. Other awards may remind us of the ones that got away – so many of the recipients of the Cholmondeley award for achievement in poetry were already represented – so why not the sharp and witty Dorothy Nimmo? Similarly, the influential anthology of poetry The Rattle Bag, first published in 1982, still deserves recognition. Ted Hughes was one of its editors, and he would doubtless approve of his fellow poet laureate Andrew Motion’s Poetry Archive of sound recordings of poets (including Hughes) reading their own work.

A deserved new prominence for children’s literature, with its own prize-lists included - also for the first time - in the seventh edition made Julia Donaldson, the former children’s laureate, a natural addition, although she would be much less readily recognized than her Gruffalo. Tove Jansson’s Moomins have similarly enjoyed a recent resurgence in all kinds of non-literary manifestations, not just on television, but on bags and mugs and other marketing paraphernalia, just like the floral rabbits (not at all in the same vein as the Rabbits of Nina Raine’s plays) which are at the heart of The True Deceiver, one of Jansson’s newly-translated pieces of writing for adults. The mining of Jansson’s work has also brought new editions of her comic strips for the London Evening News, which themselves are part of a wider field of graphic novels, including manga, a form which has become outstandingly popular in the 21st century. The recent Asian influence on literary culture in the West is represented too by an entry for the Chinese American writer Yiyun Li. Other Americans who get a first outing here are Marilynne Robinson, recognized immediately for her three compact novels, and Jonathan Franzen, who achieved success with his third, and not at all compact novel, The Corrections (2001).

‘Genres’ may become ghettoes, and have had a bad press for centuries – created not least by the mass-produced sentimental and Gothic fiction of the Minerva Press, including the Gothic novels recommended by Isabella Thorpe in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. Michelle Paver negotiates more contemporary genres with enormous success. Her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series for young adults sold more than one million copies before the publication of the final book, but her historical novels and ghost stories are also excellent. Also straddling several worlds are the ubiquitous vampires in literature, now spawning their own university courses, and likely to remain undead for the foreseeable future. Thrillers and detective fiction remain just as popular, although Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, are growing younger as they age, with recent outings as ebooks and on TV for their earlier selves.

Dinah Birch and Katy Hooper, The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature