|"Length of the average dissertation," from FlowData.|
When I made a snide remark about length on Facebook, my historian friends jumped to the defense of 325 page dissertations as the necessary length for a monograph. Other fields publish articles rather than books. Thus, the argument went, they can get away with less. This perplexed me. A doctoral dissertation no matter the field should demonstrate an original contribution to knowledge, right?
Last time I checked, one can’t measure originality with a ruler or a word count. The Encyclopedia Britannica used to fill rows of shelves, but it contained less innovation than the napkin upon which
Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws. It makes a mighty doorstop as well as an excellent overview of 18th-century political theory, but Madison’s concise constitution brought bigger results in fewer words.
Historians have never been certain whether we rank among humanists or social scientists. Do we weave tales or devise algorithms from the infinite human variables hidden in the past? Is our fundamental task to describe the human experience or analyze it? If the former, no wonder we run on so long. The infinite permutations of personal experience stand at odds with the virtues of pithy prose. We forgive Dickens and Dostoevsky their length for this reason, but should they serve as historians’ role models? According to the chart, anthropologists, whose ethnographic methodologies hinge upon description, nip at historians’ lengthy heels. Einstein captured rather a lot with E=MC2, that’s why mathematicians and physicists come in comfortably under 200 words.
I think most historians have had the experience of reading a brilliant, incisive essay in a journal or collected volume then trudged through the book that expanded the same analysis from 30 to 300 plus pages. The extra examples and paths through the past make us fall in love with our own research, but how many of our readers—even other historians—care?
A few days before the dissertation chart made the internet rounds, Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellow George Saunders spoke about his artistic practice as a short story writer on my campus. Years ago, I read Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies followed by The Namesake. Each of her short stories in the former Pulitzer-Prize-winning collection established a cast of characters, or—if you will—derived an equation constituted of characters as complex as that in the later novel. The novel (begun as a novella) attempted to propel the characters through a narrative/solve the equation with less critical acclaim. My equation analogy for Lahiri’s work came to mind as Saunders described his education as an engineer and his thrill when he takes ten pages and pares them down to one page of perfect prose. I tell my students to think of one page essays as a reduction sauce. Simmer off the excess and leave me with pure flavor. Like a good engineer who seeks to solve a problem, simplify the equation.
Saunders noted that novelists make more money than writers of short stories. Historical essayists such as John Murrin and Bob Scribner never earn the royalties garnered by Gordon Wood or Stephen Ozment, let alone journalists cum historians David McCollough or Barbara Tuchman. Do historians seek an added intellectual value in books or a shot at big bucks and the ultimate money-earner, a movie? These books and films definitely reach a wider audience outside the classroom, but do they convey as much useful information as a tightly argued article assigned in an undergraduate seminar? Size clearly matters, but why and how?