That mixture of diffidence and bravura shows up in almost all doctoral work. The “us” I want the author to speak to isn’t just anyone, either, but the targeted readership that will benefit from a scholarly book.When a dissertation crosses my desk, I usually want to grab it by its metaphorical lapels and give it a good shake. The recalcitrant garden-variety dissertation—lips sealed, secrets intact—will find a readership among two hundred library collections at best.(Become—not are already—books.) To judge by the manuscripts that scholars send to publishing houses, the majority of the theses for which the Ph. is awarded are still highly limited enterprises—confident treatments of narrow subjects, making claims to boldness but doing so by means of elaborate reference to the work of others.
“You’re writing it to protect yourself,” the professor observed, and meaning, too, that you are therefore not writing in order to create as bold and imaginative a work as possible.
The dissertation is always looking over its shoulder.
The process by which a dissertation becomes a book has several intermediate stages, the most important of which is the transformation from one kind of unpublished manuscript into another, that is, from an unpublished Ph. The first is a stack of paper an editor simply won’t consider for publication, and the second is one the editor will look at with professional interest. Revising is lonely work, even for a young scholar trying to make sense of a freshly completed dissertation. This thing you’re working on now has no advisor, no committee.
Unless you’re already under contract to a publisher, no one is demanding that chapters of your book emerge from your printer according to a strict schedule.
But what is it about the dissertation that makes it so unlikely that it can be made to speak?
One senior scholar, veteran of many dissertation committees, cheerfully told me that the doctoral thesis was, at heart, a paranoid genre.Then there are the scholars who sit on your dissertation committee.They may not be famous, but for the moment they are the Kindly Ones—the Eumenides—and you will want them on your side.These are natural responses to authority, to one’s teachers, to those who will pass judgment on your work.All this looking over the shoulder may be good for self-protection, but it gets between you and the book you would like to be writing.You pour libations to the loudest of the influential dead.The more you do this, the more difficult it becomes to see where your own work ends and the ideas of the Masters begin, so thoroughly has your writing absorbed a way of expressing itself. Encouraged by the response, Pat sends off the manuscript, fresh from the defense. To scholarly publishers it seems that for generations, dissertations have been built on a surprisingly simple formula. thesis and is congratulated by the supervising committee. “You must publish this, Pat, and soon,” one committee member says, and goes on to suggest two or three publishing houses to which Pat might now write. The pages, which appear not to have been disturbed, are accompanied by a note. The tenure system, with its demand for book-length publication in the face of increasingly unattractive odds?You might, of course, arrange an informal committee to spur you on, but it will be a committee of your own making, probably friends and colleagues corralled into reading drafts and chapters.As they read your work, they will be weighing both their words and the strength of your friendship.