Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Are Graphic Novels Really in a Category All Their Own?

Two weeks ago today, when the National Book Award finalists were announced, one title in particular caused quite a stir: David Small's Stitches. The memoir in graphic novel form received a nod, alongside four other phenomenal books, in the Young Adult category. Publishers, authors, booksellers and readers alike were thrilled - and confused. On Twitter, in blogs and even in Publishers Weekly, the resounding question was: Why YA?

NBA judges don't choose the categories to assign nominations - publishers do. And on the day that the finalists were announced, the internet was alive with theories as to why W. W. Norton submitted Stitches in the YA category. Publishers Weekly quoted Heather Doss, Bookazine's children's merchandise manager, guessing that its publishers were wary of pitting the book against strong competition in the adult nonfiction category, where the memoir might more obviously have fit. It's possible; after all, the nonfiction category saw more nominations than any other (481 versus YA's 251 nominations) and boasted a myriad of strong literary and academic titles. But other readers thought the nomination had more to do with the book's format as a graphic novel: "The cynical side of me," @chasingray Tweeted, "says Stitches was nominated as YA because a gn [graphic novel] has a better shot there than in the adult category."

What concerns me, in all this controversy, is not the implications of this nomination for the field of YA literature, but the questions highlighted by these comments: where, in the literary world, do graphic novels belong? And can they hold their own against mainstream fiction and nonfiction titles?

The well-known manager of WORD, a popular bookstore in Brooklyn, noted the Stitches controversy on her Twitter. "Maybe that's a sign," she said, that "graphic novels and comics should be getting their own NBAs? Long overdue, I think." And it seems that, in large part, the mainstream publishing world agrees with her. Publishers Weekly has announced a new Children's Comics review section, which might mean that we're closer to creating a new category than we might think.

Given the growing popularity of graphic novels (not to mention film adaptations of graphic novels and comics), readers might be thrilled to see the category finally recognized. But as for me - I'm concerned.

Sure, a separate, recognized category for graphic novels would in some way offer the popular, artistic form an official statement of validation from the mainstream book world. On some level, it would be read as an acknowledgment that graphic novels can be art and literature on par with the more traditional books that have been recognized and enjoyed for centuries. But on another level, the creation of a separate category for graphic novels would give the genre a "separate but equal" status, if you'll excuse my phrasing there, in the book world.

If you've spent any amount of time with me in real life, you'll know that I am an avid photographer as well as a reader and baby publisher. As such, I approach this discussion with a mind to the history of photography, and some aspects of the debate are giving me déjà vu.

When photography first became accessible to the average person and began to gain widespread popularity, it was shunned by the art world. Compared to painting, the most recognized and applauded art form at the time, photography was quick and too true-to-life. What's more, it was too popular; photographs found their first fans among families that could never have afforded to commission a painting, but now found family portraits and keepsake images available to them. Artists, for the most part, viewed the rising interest in photography as anything between frivolous and vulgar. Of course, some artists went against the grain and accepted photography as an art, but it was years before mainstream galleries and literary publishers began to showcase photographs at all (The New Yorker, for instance, was extremely slow in incorporating photographs alongside illustrations). And when they did, they most often housed photographs in entirely separate galleries from the more accepted works of drawing, painting and sculpture.

While photographers celebrated being recognized as artists at all, the distinction drawn between photography and other forms of art had negative implications for the art. The separation said, effectively, that photography might be art, but it certainly wasn't the same as other art. And, given the art world's strong resistance to photography, the underlying implication was that photography was not just a different art, but a lesser one. The dominant opinion in the art world seemed to be that photography required some skill, but the skill was at best different from and at worst inferior to the skill of a painter.

See the similarities? Though graphic novels cannot always be called comics and often share little, plot-wise, with their cousins in the publishing world, they do find their roots there. Comics have long faced strong biases in the world of publishing. They are the book world's photography: relatively quick reads that aren't seen as throwing a lot of literary punches. But after years of resistance, the mainstream publishing world has begun to see the merit of the genre that has come out of the marriage of comics to literature: the graphic novel. They still have their naysayers, but the many literary merits of graphic novels like Stitches, Alan Moore's Watchmen series and Art Spiegelman's Maus (to name just a few) are finally beginning to be understood.

And I would argue that putting graphic novels into their own category will only limit our ability to see those merits. Separate graphic novels often have less in common with each other than they do with other, more traditional books; does a graphic fantasy series like Neil Gaiman's Sandman share more with Stitches or with David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas? Is Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis more like Frank Miller's Sin City or Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran? And shouldn't those comparisons be made based on the marriage of form and content, rather than on one or the other?

Today photography is much more accepted in the mainstream world of art (and most experts would argue that it has usurped painting's place as the dominant art form) but it had to overcome a lot of bias to get there, including bias that stemmed from what initially seemed like a nod of recognition for the art form. That's certainly not what I hope to see happen with graphic novels.

What about you all? What do you think - should graphic novels be compared based on their form, or their content? How do you expect the opinion of the mainstream publishing world regarding graphic novels to change over the next several years?