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?


  1. I definitely think graphic novels should be compared more on content rather than form. There are graphic novels clearly meant for adults, others clearly meant for children, and a ton that fall somewhere in between and blend target audiences (as Stitches apparently does; I haven't read it, but prior to the NBA nominations I'd seen it recommended as an adult book with older teen appeal). Plus, how do you compare a memoir to something like "Rapunzel's Revenge," which is an awesome graphic novel that re-tells Rapunzel's story in a fantasy-based Wild West setting?

    I don't follow graphic novels enough to be able to form an opinion on what their future holds, but the idea of putting graphic novels off in their own NBA category reminds me of the debate that happened earlier this year about how to modify the American Library Association's Best Books for Young Adults list. Everyone seems to agree the list needs to be altered in some way, but no one can agree how it should be. One proposal was the say BBYA should only be for fiction books, since ALA is now introducing a non-fiction list. However the concern then becomes that by separating non-fiction from the fiction, we could be sending a message that these two forms can never be compared, and that you read fiction for fun and non-fiction for research. By including non-fiction on the general BBYA list, it sends a message that these non-fiction books can be just as entertaining as all the rest of the titles on the list. Doing a separate NBA category for graphic novels would be akin to that: "These books have nothing to do with those other books. The best of young adult literature will never include graphic novels. The best non-fiction will never be presented in sequential art form."

  2. Rachel, I love graphic novels, and I did not anticipate your well-constructed argument. Here's my note to let you know that I enjoyed your analysis.

    Dr. Steve Broe

  3. I agree with your feeling about the "separate but equal" status not really doing justice to the potential weight of graphic novels. And your photography analogy is particularly apt. It seems logical on the surface to acknowledge the differences between graphic novels and traditional novels by not making them 'compete', but in the long run it does a disservice to everyone.

    It reminds me of when people ask me if I like anime/manga. There are about eleventybillion different TYPES of anime, the fact that it's a certain animation style doesn't make them all comparable.

    p.s. - I love the blog name, great play on words, but I HATE track changes. :)

  4. Two of my all time works of art are graphic novels. I'll mention them here: Howard Chaykin's "American Flagg," and Alan Moore's, "The Dark Knight Returns." Especially, I found "American Flagg," amazing and groundbreaking.

    I have been a bit frustrated such a great book never broke into more widespread readership, although "American Flagg," is created with helping to lead the comic book renaissance of the 1989's.

    Maybe we should just be glad they are called graphic novels today. When I was a kid reading Marvel titles, they were called comic books.

  5. Angela - Excellent point about making the distinction between nonfiction and fiction. And I think that, some literary fiction aside, the we (intentionally or unintentionally) offer a lot more respect to readers of nonfiction than readers of fiction. My friend and once a fellow intern, Sarah, has a great post on her blog addressing a part of that issue: I think it will resonate with you, particularly, given your interest in Children's Lit (which, by the way, I do think will Change the World Someday).

    As readers and simply as members of a mainstream culture as well as of the publishing world, we come at all types of books with our own biases and with the biases that our culture instills in us. It's hard to toe the line between making distinctions where distinctions are necessary, and being too quick to assign books to a particular category - and thus bury them under the baggage attached to that category.

    Steve - It's great to see you found your way over from the Phi Beta Kappa discussion board, and I'm glad you enjoyed my post! Thanks for the link to your own blog, which I'm certain will be incredibly useful as I continue to job search.

    leofeline (Hi Nydia) - Don't be hating on track changes; it makes my job as an editor a whole lot easier sometimes. I should know, after spending hours as a freelancer, input manuscript edits (not that I'm complaining - it's a great chance to learn about the copyediting process!).

    More to the point, I think that the issue may boil down to this in a lot of ways: while we may have good intentions in not making two books/art forms/whatever "compete," what we can sometimes do inadvertently is show that we are afraid they can't compete.

    Curtis - Absolutely! I agree that the new genre title is a sign of progress, and a much-deserved one. I had the opportunity to attend an exhibition on graphic novels in Edinburgh a little over a year ago, and learned a lot about graphic novelists' journey to their genre name; it is certainly a triumph!

  6. I do see merit in your argument, but I still think graphic novels deserve a separate category in the world of awards. I say this as a writer who would be somewhat intimidated to see my world-only narratives placed up against something with the versitality that can be provided by adding visuals to a story. The art of the comic book is almost a halfway point between a novel and a movie; you have the viceral power of an image combined with the descriptiveness of the written word. That doesn't mean that the story contained within a graphic novel cannot be compared to a completely written piece (I like your example of Persepoilis vs. Reading Lolita in Tehran) anymore than you could compare a movie to a written work. But you wouldn't give a film award to a book and vice versa. They are different forms of art, with different measurements of success.

    Your example with photography works this way too. Certainly photography is an important art form that deserves recognition, but if you compared it to a painting, even of the same subject matter, you would be faced with a very different set of criteria by which to judge it. Some aspects might overlap, but there would be things that the painter could do with the image that the photographer could not and things that photographer could portray that the painter would be unable to recreate.

    By the same token I think that graphic novels would actually benefit from being in their own category. It would allow them to be judged not only on the effectiveness of the writing, but also on the effectiveness of the art. And how well the two elements work together to tell the story. If they're simply being thrust into the same category as conventional novels, the recgonition of how those elements interact runs the risk of going unnoticed. In the same way that YA fiction deserves to be judged on different merrits than adult ficton; doesn't mean it isn't skillfully constructed, but we have different expectations.

    (Also please ignore the millions of spelling errors in this comment and try not to think less of me for them.)

  7. You make several really great points, Molly, and everyone's comments are certainly making me see the argument both ways.

    You're very right about films and books being equally artistic but difficult to judge against one another. It becomes more complicated with graphic novels versus books, I think, because in so many ways the mainstream industry's acceptance of graphic novels has led to a blurring of the lines between the two forms.

    I don't know of any larger publishing houses that have produced films right alongside their books (book trailers aside), and there's good reason for that: the industries share much, but are wholly separate.

    And where comics were largely produced by companies devoted to the comic book form rather than to the traditional book, graphic novels are making the crossover more and more - Stitches is one great example, having been published by Norton, which is known for its particularly literary fiction and nonfiction trade titles. What's more, numerous books (particularly middle grade and young adult books) are combining text and illustration in a way that seems to draw something from graphic novels. Sally Nicholls' Ways to Live Forever and Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian are largely text but incorporate illustrations of notes and lists which are meant to be read as part of the story, rather than as the expansion upon it that an illustration might be. And though I haven't had a chance to read Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret and this can't totally comment, he calls it "not exactly a novel, not quite a picture book, not really a graphic novel, or a flip book or a movie, but a combination of all these things" and insists that the images help tell the story.

    Thus, while the forms and processes involved with films and with books are so entirely different that you're not likely to ever have an argument over whether a particular work constitutes a book or whether it constitutes a film, it's easy to imagine debating whether a publication is a traditional book or a graphic novel. There's a crossover that doesn't exist in such distinctly different forms as books and films. And just as young adult novels can achieve of crossover audience and achieve the same effect as an adult novel, graphic novels or some aspects of them can cross the divide, as well.

    I do think graphic novels should be judged on the effectiveness of both their writing and their art, just as I think that books should be judged on their form and content. In my ideal world, every reader would be visually literate and eloquent. My ideal reader would take every book's form into consideration (asking, for instance, "why isn't this book illustrated?" as often as "why might the author have written this as a graphic novel?") and consider what they add to the book's message.

    I hope that that's where modern readership is headed, but I can see how much that asks of readers, since we have spent so long understanding writing and visual art in totally different ways. The changing publishing industry is offering us a myriad of new forms to take into account when judging a book, and readers are having to adjust the way they read to accommodate new forms and artistic choices. Perhaps this attempt to create categories is just one way in which we are dealing with all of that change. It will definitely be interesting to see how all this change unfolds, and how our expectations change along with the types of books that are being produced.

    Thanks for the great insights!