There has been a debate going on now across several blogs starting with Noah Smith on Noahopinion posting about "Vast Literatures as Mud Moats." He accurately complains that some people try to shut down debates by telling others that they should not speak until they have read "the vast literature" on whatever the topic is. Noah proposes a "two paper rule," that when someone poses such an argument, they should be asked to present the two best papers in the vast literature, and if those are no good, then the literature can be dismissed. Paul Krugman has weighed in supporting this rule, and providing articles he thinks are good supporting his view that standard Keynesian macro is good, even though Noah's main example of a bad vast literature was the 1960s macro literature, supposedly all no good because of being subject to the Lucas Critique, even though that critique had been known since the 1950 paper by Jacob Marschak. Then Tyler Cowen weighed in on Marginal Revolution, more or less supporting at least the general principle of the rule, but muddying the waters by dragging in the truly vast literature on climate change and not even limiting it to just one discipline, such as climatology, where the literature is vast enough as it is.
Anyway, I have popped into that debate here and there suggesting that in addition to reading the two (or maybe three) supposedly best papers, one should as well read a review essay of the literature, if one can find one. There is often much more going on in these literatures, especially the larger ones, than just what one finds in the top two papers. Noah responded on his blog with an addendum arguing that review essays do not deal with methodological issues, and that this is what he is really looking for by looking at the top two papers. But, in fact, he is wrong. The best review essays do deal with methodological debates, and often the debates in literatures involve methodological debates, with sometimes more than two methodologies involved.
Let me be clear that I am sympathetic to Noah's main point: that someone trying to shut down a debate by telling others to read a vast literature at a minimum should be prepared to summarize the main arguments of that vast literature, if not precisely provide two papers or a review essay. This is not a legitimate way to argue, and any person making such an argument is certainly open to being challenged to put up or shut up with some literature or at least decent summaries of what is in it.
Just to note that review essays can be useful, I am going to list a few fairly recent ones from the Journal of Economic Literature that deal with controversial topics about which there have been substantive, policy, empirical, theoretical, and methodological controversies, without getting into the details of any of those. But I would suggest that someone wanting to evaluate those literatures might well be helped by reading these essays in addition to whatever somebody might pull forth as the top two papers in those literatures (and the criteria for determining those has not been established at all).
This goes backward in time.
"State and Development: The Need for a Reappraisal of the Current Literature," Pranab Bardhan, JEL, Sept. 2016
"What can we learn from the Weather? The climate-economy literature," Melisse Dell, Benjamin F. Jones, Benjamin A. Olken, JEL, Sept. 2014
"Racial Discrimination in the Labor Market: Theory and Empirics," Kevin Lang and Jee-Yeon K. Latham, JEL, Dec. 2012
"Labor Supply and Taxes: A Survey," Michael P. Keane, JEL, Dec. 2011
"Relative Income, Happiness, and Utility: An Explanaton for the Easterlin Paradox and other Puzzles," Andrew E. Clark, Paul Frijters, and Michael A. Shield, JEL, March 2008
"Neuroeconomics: How Neuroscience can Inform Economics," Colin Camerer, George Loewenstein, and Drazen Prelec, JEL, March 2005
"Trade Liberalization and Poverty: The Evidence so far," L. Alan Winters, Neil McCulloch, and Andrew McKay, JEL, March 2004
"Time Discounting and Time Preferences: A Critical Review," Shane Frederick, George Loewenstein, and Ted O'Donoghue, JEL, June 2002
"The New Institutional Economics: Taking Stock, and Looking Ahead," Oliver E. Williamson, JEL, Sept. 2000
and for a real oldie but goody that may have been more influential than any of the original papers:
"Some Cambridge Controversies in the Theory of Capital," Geoffrey C. Harcourt, JEL, 1972