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Narrative of the century

Forked Tongues: Comparing twentieth century British and American literature, Edited by Ann Massa and Alistair Stead, Longman Pounds 34. 0 582 07554 8. The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel, Edited by Peter Parker, Fourth Estate and Helicon Pounds 25, 85702 209 2

Christopher Bigsby browses through companions to modern literature. Forked Tongues, in the words of the exam rubric, compares and contrasts British and American literature. It concerns itself with influence, parallel development, difference and wilful denial. It covers the novel, drama and poetry, explores gender and race, drops in on modernism, tips its hat to postmodernism, sidesteps literary theory, if not its language, examines literary adaptations, explicates imagery and leaps tall buildings. In other words, this a book with no small ambition.

It is a book, too, which defends the notion of American exceptionalism, the idea that, in Byron E Shafer's words, "the United States was created differently, developed differently, and thus has to be understood differently. " What is at stake, then, is implicitly a concern with national identity, though this is approached through an examination of the writer's response to sexuality, cultural style, tradition and myth.

Almost inevitably Forked Tongues seems to fire in a number of directions, like a Gatling gun on the back of a runaway wagon. The editors do what editors have always done. They make a virtue of randomness, thanking a "non prescriptive publisher" and a "scholarly community" (viz the 18 contributing writers) who "went beyond the fairly basic set of questions that we had considered appropriate" (ie, in exam terms, failed to read the question). In other words, no sooner had they bought the horse than it bolted.

Their ingenious solution is to lasso it with not one table of contents but three, so that if one fails to do the job the others may. With more than an edge of desperation they then invite the reader to "formulate other potential interpretations among the heterogeneous materials provided."

The surprise is that it all seems to work. The individual pieces are super-glued together with a series of linking narratives which add up to a convincing master story, while a number of the pieces (including Hermione Lee on Willa Cather, Ruby Cohn on Sam Shepard and Edward Bond, and Judie Newman on Alison Lurie) are persuasive, even if they do at times seem like so many party pieces.

As with all parties, however, one or two voices are a little more shrill than others. There are half a dozen references to Eric Mottram in the book. He is the author of all of them and hence emerges as the Jeanette Winterson of poetry criticism, the more so when he lashes out at "reviewers, academics, teachers, the Arts Council," for "perpetually misleading readers." Ms Winterson, you recall, turned up on the doorstep of one such misleader. As poet and critic, however, he has doubtless earned his right to raise his voice. I feel less charitable towards Olga Kenyon whose fondness for the word "foreground" goes beyond affectation into the realm of the deeply irritating.

There are a few blemishes. Far from America losing more troops in her year's involvement in the First World War than in the four years of the Civil War, in fact that war proved bloodier than World War I, Korea and Vietnam combined. Nonetheless this is a stimulating read. The pointillist approach may leave us with a slightly fuzzy picture of the two cultures but how could it be otherwise when, public myths aside, both societies have projected images so often at odds with their shifting reality? Those deceptions, sometimes subtle, sometimes crude, are, anyway, implicit in the book's title, hinting, as it does, at the misunderstandings, ambiguities and evasions which have characterised the relationship between Britain and the United States and which continue to exert their fascination on the writer for whom such confusions are the stuff of art.

With a title like Forked Tongues this could hardly offer itself as a wholly reliable and complete guide to the literary world, and makes no such claim. The Reader's Companion to the Twentieth Century Novel sounds all together more portentously self-important. Divided into year-sized bites it offers plot summaries for a range of novels, together with background information and critical analyses. "All the century's major novelists are represented," it claims, only to swiftly modify this grand claim to include only major English language writers, plus a few minor ones, chosen, as far as one can see, at random.

So, in a book describing itself as a companion to the 20th century novel, out go many of the century's most influential novelists. Also excluded are genre writers, though not, apparently, crime, science fiction, thrillers or children's fiction. Quite which other genres that excludes is none too clear, though your chances of staying in are rather better if you are British. Out goes Ursula LeGuin, but not, apparently, J R R Tolkien. Out goes Frank Herbert, but not John Wyndham. Ian Fleming is there, but not John Grisham.

Coverage is nonetheless generous, though I missed entries on Margaret Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Reynolds Price, John Gardner and Amy Tan. And where, one might ask, is Gone With the Wind, one of the century's biggest selling novels? Well, that is a game anyone can play, of course, but the truth is that they are excluded in order to make room for some fairly marginal figures. What, for example, are we to make of the inclusion of that well known novel, The Tale of Peter Rabbit?

The book, its editor, Peter Parker, explains, is offered in part as an aide memoire for those who have forgotten the author or title of a book, the names of its characters (as I recall they were Flopsy, Mopsy and Cotton-tail) and the details of its plot. As such it has its uses. As a bluffer's guide it is likely to prove invaluable. There is also a fascination in reflecting on changes in literary taste over the century, but I still find this a somewhat curious publication, a literary equivalent of Trivial Pursuit which is liable to annoy almost as much as it pleases.

Its editor has, however, made one shrewd decision. Among the 750 novels you will find Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, by Jeanette Winterson. So Peter Parker is at least safe from a knock on the door.

Christopher Bigsby is Dean of the School of American and English studies at the University of East Anglia.

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