For an editor, compiling a list of the world's "greatest" or "most important" women writers and then settling on the top 135 must be a no-win intellectual/political exercise similar to being a celebrity guest on NPR's "Desert Island Discs" program: Everyone will sneer at your taste whatever you do. The trick is to pick your favorites and leave it at that -- no apologies.
Assembling a representative group of great women writers may be a more daunting (and politically incorrect) task than lining up 10 favorite pieces of music. If one selects precisely 135 greats, the political element becomes obvious: The publisher must be calling the shots.
Nonetheless, Frank N. Magill has chosen wisely and well in compiling his slate of brilliant, fascinating and often controversial women who have achieved a particular status in the realm of letters. From Agatha Christie to Christine de Pisan, Sarah Orne Jewett to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, "Great Women Writers" is an excellent reference work for the many readers interested in the lives and works of female authors.
Pioneers in women's writing mingle with winners of the Nobel, Pulitzer and Booker prizes, and the volume showcases the premier writers whose literary concerns -- far from being exclusively feminist -- include universal topics: racism, classism and colonialism.
In a maximum of about five pages of text, each entry includes a short biography and bibliography as well as an accessible critical appraisal of the writer's major works.
The critique clarifies the social context of a poem, essay or fictional piece and reveals succinctly the author's recurrent themes, settings, images and symbols.
In an especially detailed analysis of the works of Sandra Cisneros, the critic discusses how she draws "on the memories of her childhood and cultural identity -- the rundown, crowded apartment, the double-edged sword of being American and yet not being considered American, the sight of women in her community closed in behind apartment windows" -- while avoiding the "romantic cliches of life in the barrio."
Although the scope of the book must necessarily force some generalizations, most assessments clearly articulate specific literary heritages. One aspect of Anne Tyler's greatness, for example, is "her somewhat unusual position among late twentieth century American writers: a Southerner with a traditional interest in family, community, and the past; a modern woman fascinated with change and drawn to urban life; a writer with faith in the human race's ability to love and endure yet keenly aware of the difficulties of contemporary life, particularly the failure of communication within the family." Such an analysis is particularly illuminating to readers approaching these writers for the first time. Using this chair-side reference, a good reader may become a better reader.
Mr. Magill and his very competent crew of contributors maintain a cultural, racial and historical balance. The Mothers of the Novel -- Jane Austen, the Brontes and George Eliot -- stand shoulder to shoulder with their diverse literary daughters -- Maya Angelou, P. D. James, Joyce Carol Oates, Ursula Le Guin and Jamaica Kincaid, to name only a few. Jane Austen, of course, turns out to be the Mother of All Literary Mothers: The critiques of such writers as Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Bowen, Anita Brookner, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Barbara Pym and Ann Radcliffe all refer back (quite correctly) to that early-19th-century paragon.
The roll of those whose names are missing from the list of the greats often reveals the idiosyncrasies of the editor, and there are some inconsistencies here. Writers from all over the globe are well represented: Anita Desai (India), Natalia Ginzberg (Italy), Isak Dinesen (Denmark), Lady Murasaki (Japan), Gabriela Mistral (Chile), Alice Munro (Canada), George Sand (France), Christina Stead (Australia) and Nelly Sachs (Germany; Nobel Prize 1966).
Yet, Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston have not been selected; nor has Susan Sontag, Rebecca West, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu or Aphra Behn. Margaret Drabble is in, but her sister, A. S. Byatt, author of the prize-winning "Possession," is not. Beth Henley is in, but Caryl Churchill is missing. Gail Godwin is in, but Mary Gordon is out.
Guests on "Desert Island Discs" always get to take along a Bible and the complete Shakespeare. Perhaps the complete works of Nadine Gordimer (Nobel Prize 1991), Toni Morrison (Nobel Prize 1993) or Marguerite Yourcenar should be gratis as well.
Dr. Kaplan is associate professor of English and associate academic dean at Goucher College.
Title: "Great Women Writers: The Lives and Works of 135 of the World's Most Important Women Writers, From Antiquity to the Present"
Editor: Frank N. Magill
Publisher: Henry Holt
Length, price: 611 pages, $40