Dissertation Envy

In the course of preparing for the jungle war that will be the dissertation process, I have come across a fair few examples of the sorts of projects others have done and are doing. They are all more appealing, well-organized, and better thought out than my own. Or so it would seem from the outside.

The structure I have seen for a dissertation and a good number of shorter critical works is thus: introduction, three to five chapters, conclusion, bibliography. Almost without exception, the chapters are 40-70 pages, and each deals with a single author or text. I recently read a dissertation on the "inheritance novel," which makes an argument for establishing that genre using Clarissa, Evelina, and Pride and Prejudice. Another I encountered follows tropes of failed lineal descent through Tale of a Tub, The Dunciad, and Tristram Shandy (these three texts are perhaps too frequently put together, but that's another matter). The pattern repeats in book-length works. Catherine Gallagher's Nobody's Stories has six chapters dedicated to Aphra Behn, Oroonoko, Delarivier Manley, Charlotte Lennox, Frances Burney, and Maria Edgeworth. This, apparently, is how you write a book.

I am having difficulty duplicating this structure in my own work--narrowing down the focus, as it were. For the moment at least I've settled on a breakdown by genre: encyclopedias/dictionaries, poetry, periodicals, novels. I've got a neat little structure there that makes a great deal of sense to me in the abstract. The project is about generic organization of literature with respect to time, or how each genre negotiates its past, present, and future. Encyclopedias, as I will establish in the first chapter, began the century by collecting past knowledge and aspiring to completeness. It ended the century by morphing into a more progressive genre, unable to systematize fully the knowledge of all things and settling into a long life as a research tool. Rather than containing all knowledge, it became about producing more knowledge within disciplines. It's the Britannica I'm speaking of towards the end, and the first edition came out in 1768. The novel, I mean to suggest, underwent largely the same trajectory, so I shall close with Tristram Shandy, a full-on encyclopedic novel more deeply involved in novelistic tradition than is usually appreciated. The last volume of Shandy appeared in 1767, which closes the dissertation into a nice circle in terms of texts and time.

Haven't sorted out the middle, yet.

Encyclopedias are easy. There are a lot of them, but it's easy to talk about the Big Three: Chambers, Diderot, Britannica. Half of this chapter already exists in a term paper waiting to be reworked. Also, they're "closed" units with far fewer and better-defined generic conventions governing their operation. Despite the mind-boggling nature of their stated purpose--collecting and arranging all knowledge--they're quite simple things to think about. Novels, on the other hand, are ridiculously complex beasts, each the spawn of a bastard genre uncertain of its parentage and searching for literary legitimacy. Tristram Shandy is not just encyclopedic the way a novel is encyclopedic, by which I mean capable of containing and mediating and/or remediating all forms of writing. Other novels (Joseph Andrews, Tom Jones, Clarissa, The Female Quixote, Evelina, Miss Betsy Thoughtless, A Simple Story) traffic in encyclopedic terms, or at least the discourse of completeness, order, epistemological utility. This is intergeneric encyclopedism--a novel, in its post-taxonomic-free-for-all definition, gives you poems, songs, ballads, plays, letters, essays, treatises, sermons, romances, newspapers, magazines, epics, fables, true histories, amatory fiction, didacticism, and so on. They're recognizably present, though fundamentally altered in their synthesis by the novel's fictive status and formal realism. Chivalry isn't dead, it's just been burdened with jointures. Shandy of course takes this to extremes. It has the intergeneric encyclopedism of the novel even as it mocks the claims to characterological and epistemological completeness made so loudly by and by others on behalf of Clarissa, which despite its popularity and number of imitators actually threatened to kill the genre where it stood--a fact reflected, I think, though perhaps not intentionally, by the death of its heroine and the high probability of suicidal tendencies in any of its readers who thought story might count for as much as sentiment. Shandy also, however, has intrageneric encyclopedism. It brings together the entire history of the novel's "rise" by containing and (comically, satirically) abridging the principle concerns of half a century's imaginative prose.

If one wanted to know the history of the novel, one could practically do away with every novel but Tristram Shandy. This is course precisely what Chambers wanted with his Cyclopaedia--to render a great many other books unnecessary. The problem in novelism is that unless you've read a great amount of what Tristram contains and digests, however messily, you wouldn't know it was doing it. To a reader in Sterne's time, though--to an avid devourer of prose fiction--perhaps it was clearer. I certainly like to think it was, because the text is made much richer the more specific its references. The problem I keep running up against in approaching this chapter is how to talk about the nature of Tristram's problematic encyclopedism without becoming problematically encyclopedic myself. To write about Tristram Shandy is to write about a lot of eighteenth-century novels. I'm just not sure for how many or how much of them I have to account.

How do I write about a whole genre in fifty or sixty pages, even if I approach it through one book, when other, better, and smarter dissertators dedicate whole dissertations to single genres, and even then select only three or four works to support their examinations of a single theme?

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