THE GAY AND LESBIAN LITERARY HERITAGE A Reader's Companion to The Writers and Their Works, From Antiquity to the Present Edited by Claude J. Summers Henry Holt. 786 pp. $45 IN THE SPRING of 1984, I was able to research a feature on gay and lesbian publishing in two afternoons and about two dozen phone calls, touching base with nearly every publisher involved in the then-tiny market. This past April, halfway through assigning an issue of the gay and lesbian book-review magazine that I edit, I made a list of galleys and books outstanding on my shelves. I quickly came up with 75 titles from gay and lesbian, mainstream, university and small presses. One recent estimate puts the number of gay and lesbian books published last year at 2,000.

Such a burgeoning field has inevitably called forth reference works. This spring saw the publication of the hefty {ital} Gay and Lesbian Literary Companion {end ital} (Visible Ink), followed now by the even more massive 786-page {ital} Gay and Lesbian Literary Heritage {end ital}.

{ital} Heritage {end ital} is built upon an alphabetical collection of short biographies, survey articles of various periods and nationalities (English literature, for example, is the subject of six essays beginning with the Middle Ages and concluding with the 20th century) and essays on selected topics (such as "The Bible" and "Butch-Femme" relations, to choose two from the Bs). Although some topics are unique to this volume, most ("The Pastoral," "Modernism") would not be exceptional in any general literary reference work. Indeed, one of the interesting aspects of this collection is how encompassing gay and lesbian literature proves to be. The book amounts to a kind of shadow history of world literature -- Goethe and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and even Hemingway are in here.

Not surprising in a work of many hands, the quality of the articles varies. The entry on the Alexandrine poet Cavafy (1863-1933), for instance, is a dutiful summary, giving little sense of the poetic world that captivated writers from W.H. Auden to James Merrill. Robert K. Martin's discussion of Herman Melville suffers from different problems. It's not that Martin lacks insight into Melville's fiction (although he only dimly perceives the breezy humor in {ital} Moby-Dick{end ital}'s very funny chapter "Squeezing Sperm"). But Martin's relentless analytical approach eventually does violence to Melville's novel, turning a mysterious and powerful story into a dry allegory, each event and character in a one-to-one relationship with an abstract idea.

Editor Claude J. Summers's essay on Christopher Marlowe strikes a better balance between analysis and appreciation. Summers is wonderful on the reasons for the rhetorical effectiveness of Marlowe's often-quoted comment, "They that love not Tobaccoe & Boies were fooles." And his discussion of Marlowe's "Edward II" refuses to see it as "simply a liberal defense of sexual freedom." It is precisely the poetry -- what makes Marlowe's work literature, not tract -- that Summers keeps firmly in mind.

There are actually two enterprises at work in {ital} Heritage {end ital}. The first is compiling a record of the results of about 25 years of post-Stonewall literary reevaluation -- putting the old wine of literary history into new gay-lib bottles. Summers's essay (like Georgetown professor Bruce Smith's on Shakespeare) is a measure of how sophisticated this rereading has become, taking care not to project anachronistic views of toleration and post-Freudian notions of identity onto the past while remaining alert to what literature has to tell us about a homoerotic sensibility.

The result in some cases is a a major reevaluation. For instance, feminist and lesbian literary concerns combine to dramatically boost the literary stock of Aphra Behn. Once known as the author of {ital} Oronooko {end ital}, her 1688 novel about a slave rebellion in Surinam, Behn here receives a full-dress treatment as the first English woman to make a living by her pen, as the first English novelist period ({ital}Love Letters Between a Nobleman and His Sister{endital}), 1682-1685) and as the author of strikingly explicit lesbian love poetry.

In tandem with its reassessment of the literary past, {ital} Heritage {emd ital} is also engaged in sorting through and organizing the literary present -- putting the new wine of contemporary talent into the old bottles of a literary canon. Just as it seems that little of the literary past hasn't been ransacked by gay and lesbian literary scholarship, few contemporary writers are apt to be counted missing here. An essay on the presumably tiny field of Asian/Pacific gay and lesbian literature discusses dozens of writers. What with desktop publishing and copy shops and the OutWrite writers conferences, there seems to be no longer any need to mourn with Thomas Gray (found on page 341 of Heritage) any "mute inglorious Miltons" among contemporary gay and lesbian writers.

It is in its divvying up of space to living writers that this book is likely to be most controversial within the gay and lesbian community. Egos and judgments are involved here. I see no reason for Dorothy Allison to receive a separate entry while fellow South Carolinian Harlan Greene languishes in the obscurity of a survey essay (although it would clearly have been a travesty if the situations had been reversed). Summers's biases tend toward things French and theoretical; there is a biography of French philosopher Michel Foucault but not of American historians John Boswell and Jonathan Ned Katz. No doubt, in a book already reaching a size too big to lie comfortably on a desk, hard choices had to be made. But do we really need a full entry debunking rumors about Ernest Hemingway?

Of course, it is in society at large that the potential for real controversy surrounding this book lies. "Gay writers," {ital} Heritage {end ital} contributor David Bergman recently wrote, "face the situation that we have created a niche large enough to sustain ourselves but too small to propel us into the mainstream." To the author's understandable hunger for fame and glory -- "if Amy Tan can reach a mainstream audience, why can't I? -- is added a political dimension. The defining political act of the contemporary gay and lesbian movement is "coming out," the public declaration of oneself as homosexual. Coming out loses much of its force if your public consists only of other gay men and lesbians.

That's why Summers is right in announcing, in his introduction, a "cultural (and political) agenda" for this otherwise pretty standard book. As Bruce Bawer recently remarked in the course of an article "outing" the late conservative scholar Allen Bloom, it gets harder to claim that gay men and lesbians are outside mainstream culture, when so much of mainstream culture -- the Mona Lisa and {ital} Moby-Dick {end ital}, to use Bawer's examples -- is seen as the product of gay and lesbian minds. And it's hard to maintain that gay and lesbian authors are engaged in some strange, mysterious activity when all one needs to do to find out about these writers is pick up a thick reference book, blow off the dust and look up their names in the index. Jim Marks is editor of the Lambda Book Report. His essay "We Three" appears in the newly published "Friends and Lovers."