At over 700 pages this book is not particularly "short", but the adjective is needed to distinguish it from the multi-volume "Oxford History of English Literature". The word "English" might also need some qualification, as Scottish, Welsh and Irish writers are also included, provided that they wrote in the English language, as are some foreign-born writers. (For these purposes, Scots is regarded as an English dialect, so Dunbar, Henryson and Burns are in). This is doubtless the right approach. A "history of English literature" which omitted the likes of Walter Scott, Dylan Thomas, Oscar Wilde and Joseph Conrad in the interests of strict geographical accuracy would be a deficient one, and "The Short Oxford History of British and Irish Literature Written in English" would be an unwieldy title. The most surprising omission is perhaps Henry James, who has always struck me as being as much a naturalised Englishman as Conrad.
The history of Eng. Lit. has been described as "From Beowulf to Virginia Woolf", although as Woolf has now been dead for seventy years we should perhaps now speak of "From Beowulf to Louis de Bernieres", he being the last writer to be mentioned in the text. The book starts off with an interesting discussion of the gradual development of a "canon" of English literature and the way in which literary reputations have grown or diminished over the centuries. There then follow ten sections, each dealing with the literature of a particular period, in chronological order from Anglo-Saxon beginnings to post-1945 literature.
One criticism I would have would be that in latter sections Andrew Sanders displays a bias towards "literary" fiction rather than what might be called "genre" fiction. There is very little about such genres as children's literature, crime fiction, horror, adventure, science-fiction or romance. Certainly, much of the work produced in these areas has always been ephemeral, but I would have welcomed a greater recognition of the fact that some genre writers have gone on to achieve classic status in their own right. Conan Doyle, for example, is passed over in a few lines, M R James is mentioned only once as an influence on the modern novelist Charles Palliser, Ian Fleming and Agatha Christie are both dismissed in a single sentence and Daphne du Maurier, Arthur C. Clarke and Rider Haggard not mentioned at all. Sanders pays more attention to H G Wells, but treats him mostly as the author of social-realist novels like "Kipps" rather than of pioneering science-fiction classics like "The War of the Worlds".
The book does, however, also have its virtues. It is generally easy to read (something not always true of literary histories) and generally objective (ditto). There is no obvious ideological agenda and no attempt to view the entire history of English literature from a single political or aesthetic viewpoint. With the exception of genre fiction mentioned above, it is also highly inclusive. Although, generally speaking, more space is allotted to the well-known names, Sanders also makes room to mention many now-obscure figures (some of whom were far from obscure during their won times).
Arnold Bennett once said that a whole library could be filled with books which "every educated person" was supposed to have read but which he personally had not. Reading Sanders's magnum opus, I was reminded of this quote and of how it applies to me even more forcibly than it did to Bennett. An even more impressive library could be filled with the works of those writers I had never heard of before picking up this volume.