The New Literary Dissertation

As I write this, there’s many a final year English student in a library in every university town, panicking about their upcoming dissertations. For many of us, January means sales, snow and sticking to our new year’s resolutions but for the student, January brings with it the dark cloud of looming deadlines and, consequently, panic often begins to set in.

Billed as the ‘pinnacle of one’s academic career’, most English dissertations can be up to 20,000 words and ought to be focussed on a particular aspect of literature, the more specific the better. Gender in Victorian literature, for example, is far too broad a topic, whereas corseting the female body in the works of Margaret Oliphant is much more appropriate. As a final year student myself, I had my own dissertation-induced troubles just before Christmas, when it was time to submit initial ideas and choose a specific focus. As someone who enjoys the broad spectrum of literature, how does one go about choosing just one single area to focus on?

Perhaps you might assume that most third-year literary dissertations would target the big guns – Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen – classic authors that many will study at school and whose work is never out of print or off the screen and stage. At my university, however, this has not always been the case. There are many examples that I know where Shakespeare has been side lined, Dickens disdained and Austen avoided:  my fellow students were turning away from the ‘great classics’ of the literary canon, choosing to focus instead on modern authors, such as Margaret Atwood and Stieg Larsson. Indeed, there were plenty of unexpected choices, with one student deciding to study the stories of Roald Dahl, whilst another chose David Nicholls’ recent bestseller, One Day. Many people, however, would be quick to rank the literary merits of King Lear over The Twits. So what is it that attracted my friends and classmates, the latest generation of English Literature students, to pick a novel more likely to be found on the bestsellers’ table rather than on a traditional University reading list? Why boycott the canon?

First and foremost, when it comes to writing a dissertation, it has to be unique. With such a vast body of criticism in existence already on authors such as Shakespeare, Dickens and Austen and, with much of it easily accessible via the Internet, it’s tricky to find something to say which hasn’t already been said before. Books like Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, although not yet typical fare on the school curriculum, offer an ambitious undergraduate some uncharted territory and a chance to write an entirely original thesis.

Nicholls’ One Day has probably been influenced by classics such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and this might allow the dissertation’s author to provide some interesting comparisons between them. There would be an opportunity to explore how Nicholls has managed to reinvent the old love story that we’ve read so many times before and yet provide a fresh and original take on it. Relevance is another key reason why I believe modern books have become such a popular choice for final year students. A dissertation is one’s contribution to present-day academia and so it’s important that it can reflect current issues, rather than rehash old ones. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a dissertation topic ought to be chosen because it’s something you enjoy and can be truly passionate about: Roald Dahl might be no James Joyce and The BFG is far from being Ulysses, but if I’m going to devote the next few months of my life to this project, slavishly working away every night in the library and missing out on all kinds of fun social events, I think it’s preferable that I write about some books that I find enjoyable to read.  After all, I’ll be reading them more than once over the next three months.

It’s often said that it’s a mistake, as a student, to choose a degree because you feel you ought to, rather than one that you are going to enjoy studying for months and years. So, even before I start typing out a first draft of my dissertation, I’d like to offer an apology to William, Jane and Charles – we are sorry and we still really do like most of your works and promise to return to them later this year.  In the meantime, across universities throughout the country, Roald and Stieg await.

Leave a Comment