27 October 2006

Judging A Book By Its Illustrations (CS)

I'm a fairly big fan of Wired magazine. I love to devour tech and science news and Wired provides this and more with particular insights into art, design, culture, and even literature. I was particularly delighted this past week by their 6-Word Short Story compilation. But if they're going to publish mini-rants like the recent one by Tony Long disparaging Gene Luen Yang's American Born Chinese (second half of article), then I am going to have to question their capability of truly commenting on literature.

Long wants to criticize the selection of American Born Chinese (ABC) as a candidate for the National Book Award but immediately removes himself from being qualified to talk about the book from the get go, saying he has not read this particular "novel" (quotations his and not mine). He decides to attack the decision not based on the content of the book, nor even on its quality, but rather purely on its form. According to him, by the very fact that it has illustrations, ABC is a lesser work than anything that has strictly words inside it. It's difficult for me to deal with this criticism because it seems, on its very face, absolutely ridiculous, but I'll try.

Speaking at least from the standpoint of the National Book Award itself, there is no criteria for the award that explicitly says the work must be without illustrations or even outside the realm of being a graphic novel. Even the definition of a novel (at the very least, the one used by the National Book Award people) is not confined to books with only words in them.

Long says that, though it qualifies as an art form, "As literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories." But why? His gripe rests primarly on what he defines as an issue of difficulty as he says:
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.

But has Long ever tried writing a graphic novel? Is he aware of the particular challenges that the graphic novel presents, not only in providing a narrative, but also in the hopeful marriage between art, design, layout, and text? It seems to me that both methods of presenting a story have their particular as well as shared challenges, with neither medium edging out the other. Even accepting "difficulty of medium" as a criteria for judging a book for this award (which I do not), traditional novels are no more or less qualified than their illustrated cousin.

If you want to talk about "The Age of Mediocrity" when it comes to literature, I'd think that you would want to actually stay away from the realm of graphic literature. It is graphic literature and its publishers which have grown by leaps and bounds, not only in market size but in ambition, quality, and artistic achievement over the past decade. Meanwhile, it is the world of "books that are, well, all words" that has seemed to leave people wanting. Rarely, if ever, do I read contemporary literature and find myself moved truly viscerally.

Finally, I'd like to point out First Second as a particularly fine representative of the potential of graphic literature, ABC being just its latest pleasant product. The direspect Long shows for comics as a medium is one that is almost expected at this point. For those out there agreeing with Long, I would ask you to challenge yourself, and the First Second catalog has not only quickly become a great place to start, but promises to be a great place to continue.


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