Friday, November 10, 2006

Are Graphic Novels Literature?

A remarkable thing happened on October 11th. That's the day the National Book Foundation announced the finalists for the National Book Awards for 2006. The National Book Awards are among the most prestigious prizes in the publishing industry.

Included in the finalists for the "Young People's Literature" category was Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese, published by First Second Books, a division of Holtzbrinck. Wikipedia says: "American Born Chinese tells the story of Jin Wang, a son of Chinese immigrants, who struggles to assimilate at a predominately white school after moving from San Francisco's Chinatown to the suburbs. Jin's story is interwoven with the legend of the Chinese folk hero Monkey King, and a sitcom starring buck-toothed Chinese stereotype Cousin Chin-Kee."

According to the author's website, Yang teaches computer science at an Oakland, California high school and received a grant from the Xeric Foundation, "a private, nonprofit corporation established by Peter A. Laird, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles."

The reason for the uproar is that American Born Chinese is a graphic novel--what used to be called a comic book. Speaking of the finalist list, USA Today reported: "'The list is unconventional, unexpected; this is not what you'd expect from the National Book Awards,' said Harold Augenbraum, executive director of the National Book Foundation, which sponsors the prizes. 'I think the judges made really interesting choices. There are a lot of edgy narrative styles.'"

There were, of course, those who denigrated the nomination. One of the most vocal was Tony Long, the copy chief for Wired News ( In his post on October 26th, Long said:

I have not read this particular "novel" but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here. First, I'll bet for what it is, it's pretty good. Probably damned good. But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award, the American equivalent of France's Prix Goncourt or Britain's Booker Prize, is exceedingly difficult.

I'm going to go out here on a limb here, too. Long's post is pompous and intellectually dishonest. He says, "This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel," and then goes on to do exactly that.

In the first place, the category is "Young People's Literature." Most young people's literature is shorter in length (excepting, of course, Harry Potter) than adult fiction and often contains illustrations.

To slam a book--especially a children's book--because it is not "all words" is silly.

I DO know what it's like to write a "real" novel. While I don't write children's literature, I would never be so presumptuous as to make idiotic comments about those who do. I KNOW I don't have the skills or the language to meet children where they *live*, but I'm smart enough to admire the people who do. American Born Chinese clearly addresses issues of loneliness and isolation, common themes for young people.

I checked the non-profit National Book Foundation's site to find its mission. Here's what it says:

In the Spring of 1989, with The National Book Awards extant for nearly 40 years, the Board of Directors determined that the moment had come to broaden the scope of the organization beyond the single focus of literary recognition. Acknowledging the signal importance of reading and writing to citizens of all ages and backgrounds -- and the profound gap between the literary community and readers living in underserved communities -- our Trustees established The National Book Foundation to raise the cultural appreciation of great writing in America . . . Through its unique outreach programs featuring National Book Award authors, communities participate in the writing life of the nation by reading and writing together.

It seems to me that the National Book Foundation is meeting its mission by recognizing the attraction graphic novels hold for young people and by doing what it can to promote literacy among today's kids. And that doesn't even address the cross-cultural issues that are obviously a focus of American Born Chinese.

I applaud the National Book Foundation. Whether or not American Born Chinese wins, just being the first graphic novel to be nominated is a tremendous step forward.


Susan said...

I'm biased, because I really like graphics and comics (they are still two different creatures, btw). Some of them are literature in the way we think of "literature" -- erudite, maybe a bit snobby and hard to approach.

Some are just there, like a Stephen King novel, for pure enjoyment.

If anything, I think the pictures-and-dialogue format is harder to write. For one, it's almost always a collaboration, so that means that you have to have at least two people able to see the vision in your brain. For another, you rely on pictures to tell the complete scene. It's the ultimate in "show, don't tell" -- and it's proof of how hard that is.

Go read Joann Sfar's The Rabbi's Cat and then tell me if it's literature. AND if it shouldn't win awards for its art.

Maya said...

**Some of them are literature in the way we think of "literature" -- erudite, maybe a bit snobby and hard to approach. Some are just there, like a Stephen King novel, for pure enjoyment.**

But, isn't all literature like that? Graphic novels are not the only "literature" characterized by those extremes.

I think it's unfortunate that we have people like Long who are setting the bar higher simply because graphic novels include illustrations.

While all literature must *connect* with its audience, I think "Young People's Literature" has an added burden of being able to connect with an audience that has a very short attention span and may not be disposed to read. If illustrations help to attract kids' attention, I say more power to the graphic novelists.

Susan said...

All "literature"? Sure. That's exactly why I prefer the popular stuff and usually steer away from "literature" or "literary fiction". Give me the easy-to-read, breezy, good story line, great characters, no pretentions.

When I told my mom that one of my friends' kids were having trouble reading, her comment, without missing a beat, was "Tell her to give them comic books."

I'm such a huge comic fan, I'm trying to get a local artist/writer to come to my son's elementary for our yearly "Meet some authors" night. Literacy is literacy, whether you read the paper, magazines, chapter books, picture books -- or comics.

AND comics have the added benefit of teaching you to appreciate art. That can't be a bad thing.

javieth said...

I love the literature because i think reflects many aspects of our lives. But i love most the simplicity with witch things are explained is what catch my attention. The literature for me is very impressive like the effect what i feel when i buy viagra

Max said...

I remember one of the first things that got me into reading as a child was the Archie comics. I started getting them before I could actually read and then gradually I got to where I could read some of the dialogue and then to the point where I could read all of it. Now I read everything: manga, graphic novels, comic books, novels, short stories, etc. :)

W. B. Yeats said...

Movies are books now too, haven't you heard? Just because the story is told visually and the words are much further spaced apart and everything is layed out in front of you instead of using language and your own imagination as the sole facilitators of artistic expression doesn't make it not a book. Movies are graphic novels and graphic novels are books. Duh. I'm gonna go read the second half of Fight Club on Blu-Ray now, but this Long fellow seems like a snobby douche who doesn't realize that words are the same as pictures.