Friday, November 14, 2008

A new publication in an unknown encyclopedia

As some of you know, I have written entries for a couple of different encyclopedias — The J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment (ed. Michael D.C. Drout, 2006), and Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy: An Encyclopedia (ed. Robin Anne Reid, coming out in two volumes at the end of this year). This week, I’m happy to report another — in the online Literary Encyclopedia — even though the announcement may be greeted by vacant expressions.

The Literary Encyclopedia has been around for quite some time (since 2000), yet it appears to be still largely undiscovered. I’m not really sure why. Perhaps it’s better known in the U.K., where it originated. What is it, exactly? Well, apart from the simple answer — an online literary encyclopedia, duh :) — it is “an expanding global literary reference work written by over 2,000 specialists from universities around the world, and currently provides more than 5,500 authoritative profiles of authors, works and literary and historical topics and grows by 60–70 articles each month. [...] The Literary Encyclopedia offers good coverage of canonical literature originally written in English, French, German and Russian, and is extending its coverage of Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek. It is built on historical principles so that all our data can be arrayed by date, country and genre and readers can explore writing in its historical context. [...] The publication is very much a living relationship between current scholars and readers and not a repository of information formerly published in printed works.”

Quite an ambitious undertaking! Its more than 5,000 entries add up to more than nine million words. It also has more than 20,000 placeholders for entries they’d like to see written. With no practical limits as to scope or length, this is where an online encyclopedia has the opportunity to leave a print encyclopedia far behind. But what about the quality? From what I’ve read (admittedly, only a tithe), the entries are solidly researched, accurate, and well written. As with any collection by many hands, however, there may be a bad entry here or there. If you find one, send them some feedback. (And there’s another advantage an online encyclopedia has over a print publication.)

So, back to me. My first entry for them is a roughly 2,800-word essay on the Inklings. (Note that you’ll only be able to read the first 500 or so words without a paid subscription. More on that in a moment.) Following this, I will be writing a series of entries on works by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. If you have absolutely nothing better to do, you can search these out among their forthcoming entries. A new one should be appearing every two or three months from now until, oh, some time in the middle of 2010. For anyone curious to see it, an abbreviated version of my publication vita is online as well, here.

As far as The Literary Encyclopedia’s other contributors on the Inklings, I’m in good company. The encyclopedia currently has essays by Brian Rosebury (the biographical entry on Tolkien, as well as entries for The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion), Dimitra Fimi (Unfinished Tales), and Peter Schakel (the biographical entry on Lewis and entries for several of his works).

Now, as I hinted above, The Literary Encyclopedia is not free — but considering some of the “encyclopedias” that are free, it may be wise to remember that old adage, “you get what you pay for.” In any case, a membership isn’t going to set you back too much — and considerably less than buying a print encyclopedia. At present, it’s about $19.95 USD for a full year. There’s also an option for one-time, one-month access. And here’s another good reason to spring for access, or better yet, to encourage your public or university library to do so: The Literary Encyclopedia grants free memberships to institutions of higher education in countries whose per capita income is lower than the world average. So you’re being a good Samaritan too. If you want to bug your librarian about this, here are some talking points.


  1. Congratulations on the new article -- nice work! I first learned of this encyclopedia from Doug Anderson's bibliography of Rosebury in Tolkien Studies 5, but didn't follow up when I realized it required a paid subscription and (unlike ProjectMuse) wasn't carried by my local library.

    I'm surprised that there is no hyperlink cross-referencing within articles. Also, it's nice to see you've cited an article from the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, but I wish that entries that run longer than one line in the Works Consulted lists received some indentation to make the list easier to read. Speaking of that list, Rosebury's four entries, dating from 2001-2002, don't cite other critical works. Nor does Fimi's article of this year. But you list some 14 sources.

    Turning to Rosebury: in the heading of his "J.R.R. Tolkien" article, Tolkien is listed as "active" for 1937-1973. But he is also described there as "Novelist, Critic, Teacher". In the second and third capacities, he was active from the 1920s. I wonder if entries will be updated? Rosebury says that Christopher Tolkien's own writing in The Silmarillion consists of only a "few linking phrases and sentences", but by 1994 CT had acknowledged his necessarily heavy hand in Chapter 22. And there is of course nothing about The History of 'The Hobbit' in Rosebury's article on that work.

    Finally, Fimi is not quite correct that there are no "tales" in the fourth section of Unfinished Tales: there are two short narratives in the "Drúedain" chapter.

  2. Congratulations on the new article -- nice work! I first learned of this encyclopedia from Doug Anderson’s bibliography of Rosebury in Tolkien Studies 5 [...]

    Thanks! :)

    I’ve pointed out the reference in the Rosebury Checklist to a couple of people also. For everyone else, if you have Volume 5 of Tolkien Studies, turn to p. 21. This will hopefully lead others there, as it did you, and I hope they won’t give up because the resource requires payment. Speaking of, it appears based on the rest of your comments that you decided to pony up? It sounds like you read my entire entry ...?

    I’m surprised that there is no hyperlink cross-referencing within articles.

    Me too, but I can understand how it might require more editorial effort to maintain links between articles being published on different schedules than they wish to invest, at least for now. But it would improve the resource. There’s clearly room for improvement. They did recently install something called hyperwords, which is supposed to work in a similar fashion, but I haven’t tested that out yet.

    Speaking of that list [Works Consulted], Rosebury's four entries, dating from 2001-2002, don't cite other critical works. Nor does Fimi's article of this year. But you list some 14 sources.

    Right. My editor informed me that this was new as of the beginning of 2008. She must have been a little off, though, because Dimitra’s essay was published after the first of the year. But essays going forward will have proper citations and a concluding bibliography. It’s unclear whether or when they mean to go back to existing entries to add them. I hope they do, for consistency as well as credibility.

    Likewise, I don’t know whether entries will be updated for content, along the lines you suggest. (And good points you made, too, about both Rosebury’s and Fimi’s essays.) Obviously, they wouldn’t want to change them constantly (like Wikipedia entries), but there ought to be some compromise and an apparatus for correcting mistakes and incorporating new scholarship.

    Thanks again for taking a look, not only at my entry but those others, and for offering such thorough feedback.

  3. Are my comment-replies too wordy? :)

  4. Hello there.

    Thanks to Jason for spreading the word about the Literary Encyclopedia. It is indeed slightly better known in universities in the UK but still not as much as it deserves (I think!)

    Also thanks to n.e.brigand for the feedback on my entry on Unfinished Tales. Jason was right to point out that the new requirement for a "works cited" list and "recommended reading" list is much more recent than January 2008. I was first asked to provide a reference in my entry on J.M. Barrie's novel Peter and Wendy, which was not published until May 2008 - and I was only asked for it because I had used direct quotations from the novel which was not common practice in the earlier years of the Literary Encyclopedia. My latest entry (the biographical profile on Ursula Le Guin, which will be published next week) has an extensive list of “works cited” and a list of “web resources”.

    I would also like to say that if there is any more feedback on any of my academic work (especially in the case of errata, factual errors, etc) I would appreciate it if you could let me know about them via my webpage at (under “Contact”).

    Best Wishes,


  5. Hi, Dimitra. Thanks for dropping in to comment and to clarify some of the points we’d been talking about here. I’m looking forward to reading your entry on Le Guin, by the way. She’s a favorite author of mine. :)