I finished reviewing the pile of notes on the critical writing about Disgrace yesterday evening after watching the Super Bowl. This afternoon, I began what promises to be the much briefer process of reviewing my notes on the novel itself. I anticipate starting the outlining process within a few days. As much as I know I will probably struggle with and strain over the actual writing stage, I am glad it is nearing. It marks the beginning of the end of a very, very long segment of the dissertation process, a period of time I am eager to see in my metaphorical rear-view mirror.
Now, of course, this isn't to say that I am glad to see Disgrace go because, like the handful of other books I consider to be among my favorites, the novel is one that has irrevocably enriched my life and one from which I will certainly continue to draw food for thought. What I am pleased to have behind me is the criticism or, more precisely, the act of reading so much of it. I recently spoke with a fellow doctoral candidate I know at an Ivy League institution and, as is common in our exchanges, we frequently discuss the trials and tribulations of the typical graduate student at our respective institutions. I'm consistently fascinated by the subtle differences between student life at an elite private institution and that of the average student at a large, public institution. Often, the little differences are intriguing, revealing a good deal about graduate-level study in contemporary America. One of the things that was not different, though, is the approach many scholars take towards reading literary criticism when working on a book, dissertation, or essay: you simply do not read all of the stuff out there on your topic.
Now, obviously, there are certain writers about whose work so much criticism has been published that it would be well-neigh impossible to read even most of the secondary material published about a given work. Take Hamlet, for instance. Were I to write my dissertation on Shakespeare's great tragedy, I doubt I would have the time or money to track down the bookshelves of material written about the play over the past few centuries. And, clearly, the amount of material published about works like Moby-Dick, Ulysses, Don Quixote, the Divine Comedy, and the Bible would be equally difficult to master, especially in the time allotted for a graduate student to write a dissertation. When it comes to a book like Disgrace, though, about which several hundred articles have been published, I cling to the idea that such a comprehensive reading is both possible and, if anything, proper for an individual seeking to include a discussion of the novel in his doctoral dissertation. And this is where I have been mired for the past half year. While many of my peers will have read a page or two of many articles before summarily dismissing them, I have felt an obligation to read everything I could on the book. And I have. Now, certainly, not every article is relevant to my dissertation, but I always assumed that the dissertation writer will want to secure as comprehensive, if not encyclopedic, a familiarity with the material he or she chooses to focus on as possible. I realize that it is easier and, in a situation where time and money are both in appallingly short supply, perhaps even more reasonable to take the shorter, more direct route through the process. But I find that I cannot. If I am going to put my name on the dissertation, I reason, I want it to be something I can say I put my best, most concentrated effort into completing. And, to do so, I feel that I have to have the sort of comprehensive familiarity with the critical literature I have sought to achieve. . . Still, with the pragmatic approach espoused by so many of my colleagues ringing in my ears, I am so glad to be done with the critical reading on this section of the dissertation. I did it my way and, thankfully, I have not tossed in my towel, despite often hating the sheer monotony of it all. In the end, though, I want to be able to respect myself, to be able to say I did the whole damn thing the "right" way . . . And, you know what? I actually learned some pretty amazing stuff in the process of reading a bunch of stuff I reckon other people in my position would've skipped over.
So, I've got that.
But, damn, am I glad it's behind me now. Ecstatic, even.
For tomorrow and the next day or so: Re-read the quotations from and notes on the novel.
For fun, here're a few links to this blog from elsewhere on the internet:
Sobriquet Magazine, according to this Swedish university's website is "an invaluable source of reflection for the serious scholar of Coetzee's ouevre. Here one finds, with a modicum of perusing, nearly all the members constituting the central body of scholarly commentary concerning Coetzee."
And my post about driving to Ithaca to read criticism in a different environment makes an appearance on Ft. Lauderdale's East Side Readers blog.