Today is twenty-four years since I defended my PhD. Not quite a quarter of a century, but close enough.
I always tell my students that they need to write their thesis as if they wanted to save the world. Because if you don't believe in what you are doing, who will?
My PhD thesis was my third attempt. I certainly believed that my first one would make a significant contribution to linguistics, and I wasn't particularly enthusiastic about my second one, on Norwegian film, but it was a topic I was allowed to pursue at the time. Both projects were interrupted by external circumstances, and I have never regretted it. In my final and successful thesis I was doing what I had always wanted to do, and I truly believed it would make a difference. Fantasy was just beginning to become a hot research topic, after years and years of studies about dysfunctional families and teen pregnancies in children's books. In fact, the very year I moved to Sweden, the first academic study of fantasy was published in Swedish, which made me desperate until I read it and could state that it did something radically different from what I wanted to do and that I could still save the world. My thesis was indeed different from what was habitual in Sweden at the time, which was a very narrow, very concrete and specific topic of the type “The portrayal of XX in two early poems by YY”. I looked at two hundred and fifty texts and tried to make inferences from them. I wanted a taxonomy, a paradigm, a structural poetics. I wanted my work to become as famous as Propp's Morphology of the Folktale.
Looking back at it, I see its flaws – it was after all an apprentice's work, not the crown of a scholar's career. But it was not worse than most other doctoral theses and perhaps better than many. It was published as a book and had sold steadily for twenty years until the publisher gave me the remaining forty copies some years ago. It means that it has sold just under a thousand copies. I still get inquiries from libraries and colleagues and students. I always ask: Why do you want it? It is out of date, it wasn't brilliant to begin with (although I thought it was at the time), I have published so many better books since then. And yet people insist that it is very important, and some even claim that it is indispensable. I have never seen any colleague or student use my central concept of the fantaseme, the smallest identifiable element of a fantasy text, coined in analogy with mytheme. I haven't even seen my particular employment of Mikhail Bakhtin's chronotope reflected in any studies. I have no idea what people find useful. Not a catalogue of two hundred and fifty texts, I hope. There are annotated bibliographies for that purpose. Yet somewhere out there, in university libraries and in people's bookshelves, almost a thousand copies of my book are making their humble impact.