Essays and Encyclopedias: Critical Genres

Now that we’ve discussed the varying scale and scope of some 18th century genres, I want to turn this issue of scale around to consider it in relation to the critical genres that we read and write in.

I’m thinking about the full range of scholarly or critical genres that we have become familiar with: everything from the McKeonesque (soon to become a scholarly euphemism, like “Rubenesque”) monograph or the multivolume, multieditor critical edition like the California Dryden or the Yale Johnson; the heavily armored scholarly article; the sometimes lopsided variety of the essay collection; to the more slender and elegant forms of belletristic essays or what trade publishers call “nonfiction.” I’d also throw in the more ephemeral but no less valuable emanations of the classroom or the publishing world, which constitute their own versions of “publication,” in the sense of “making public”: the book review, the seminar or conference presentation, the encyclopedia entry, and even (god forbid!) the bl-g.

To give a familiar example, it’s always seemed significant to me that Ian Watt’s Rise of the Novel, for all its problems, was always being contested and revised by much larger and more complex books, which never quite managed to displace it. So Watt’s success came as much from his selection of the evidence as from his scholarly range.

So which of these forms do you find most useful to read or write in, and why? How does their length affect your use? What are the peculiar virtues of these genres?



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