A joint effort of editorial staffs from Merriam-Webster and Encyclopaedia Britannica, Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia of Literature ("MWEL") "contains entries for authors, works, literary landmarks, literary and critical terms, mythological and folkloric figures, fictional characters, literary movements and prizes, and other miscellaneous matters." The book is encyclopedic in coverage but very dictionary-like in its brevity of entries
The more than 10,000 entries in this volume cover a vast amount of territory. There are biographical entries covering all nationalities and periods ("Cavalcanti, Guido"; "Futabatei, Shimei"; "Joyce, James"), brief entries on literary characters ("Bovary, Emma"; "Hawkins, Jim"), on specific works ("Driving Miss Daisy"; "Lotus-Eaters, The"), on forms of criticism ("Feminist Criticism", "New Criticism"), on movements and events ("Jindyworobak Movement", "War of the Theaters"), and on styles ("Eclogue", "Guwen"). The only thing lacking is entries on the literary traditions of specific countries
The average entry is well under 150 words, with the longest under 700 ("Shakespeare, William", for example), and some as few as seven ("Lineation" is defined simply as "an arrangement of lines [as of verse]" ). Pronunciation is provided for most entries (even "Miller, Daisy" has one) and then an etymology for entries that define terminology. For biographical entries, places and dates of birth and death are given. The entry proper includes any cross-references ("used sparingly" according to the prefatory material) in small-capital letters. Titles of works are given in the original language followed by English translation. All entries are unsigned, and there are no bibliographies. Several hundred small black-and-white photographs and illustrations are provided
By attempting to cover almost everything, some entries are almost uselessly brief (as in the "Lineation" example above). Others, though with a literary connection, almost seem lifted from a Merriam-Webster dictionary. "Epigraph", for example, has two definitions, the first being "an inscription on a statue, a building, or a coin," and the second, "a quotation set at the beginning of a literary work." An oddity is the inconsistent description of living writers in both the present and past tense. The entry "Drabble, Margaret", for example begins, "English writer of novels that are skillfully modulated variations on the theme of. . . ." "Proulx, E. Annie", however, begins, "American writer whose darkly comic yet sad fiction was peopled with quirky, memorable characters." Nevertheless, "MWEL" admirably covers topics from a wide breadth of literary subjects. The volume also will serve as a valuable supplementary source for literary allusions, with such entries as "Banshee", "Jezebel", "Kali", and a variety of other mythological and religious entries
"MWEL" perhaps most closely represents the various Oxford Companion titles for depth of coverage, though even in that series one must first find the appropriate country-or genre-related volume. Any number of literary dictionaries and biographical dictionaries contain similar entries, but for sheer ready-reference capabilities, "MWEL" is in a class of its own. Its low price further justifies a place for this volume on any library's reference shelf.