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November 03, 2006

Guest Blogger GENE YANG responds

A Response to Tony Long

Part of me wonders exactly how serious Tony Long is. After all, his column is titled "The Luddite." He has an online persona he needs to uphold.

To be honest, I can see where he's coming from, especially as an educator. I, too, worry about the declining literacy of our students. However, studies have shown a link between comics and increased literacy skills. Often, comics readers are just plain readers, and many fans of prose literature attribute their love of reading to comics. We also can't forget that we describe the act of reading comics as just that: reading. There's no other word that can adequately describe how we interact with stories told in that medium.

I just wanted to get all that out there - I know it's not germaine to the issues Mr. Long raises. Here's how I understand his argument:

1. Sequential images (comics) and prose are different.
2. Prose is an inherently superior medium. (And more difficult to create than comics.)

And here's how I respond: #2 is just plain stupid. Different media have different strengths. There are some things that comics is better at, and some things that prose is better at. Try writing prose instructions on how to put together Ikea furniture and tell me how it goes. And while you're at it, try replicating in prose the visceral poignancy of that final, black panel in Adrian Tomine's "Supermarket" (a short story in his excellent Sleepwalk and Other Stories, in case you're
looking).

#1 is much more intriguing. It seems like a true statement, and in many ways it is, but prose has its roots in sequential images. The two aren't as separate as they might seem. Many written languages (Chinese, for example) still bear a lot of the artifacts of their pictoral ancestry. Are works created in Chinese less literary than works created in phonetic languages simply because Chinese is more pictoral? How about works created in ancient Chinese, in which the characters clearly resemble what they represent?

I don't think the boundary between prose and sequential images is that stark, and I think the generation raised on multimedia documents understands this. In fact, I believe this new generation actually blurs that boundary. My students are used to reading documents made up of words and images, sound files and movies. They aren't disturbed when these elements bleed into each other - when words use visual devices to enhance what they're communicating, when images are made up of textual elements.

The nomination of a graphic novel for the National Book Award, especially in the YA category, shows that the judges are aware of this. I also find evidence for this boundary blurring in M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, one of my fellow nominees.

Octavian Nothing is a brilliant book. Please go read it if you haven't. One of the most intriguing aspects of the book (for me, at least) is Anderson's use of visual storytelling devices. For example, Anderson uses different fonts and font styles to communicate time, place, and emotion.

There are other, more striking, examples. In an early chapter, the protagonist opens the door to a forbidden room and is startled by a sign hanging on the wall, a sign reveals the secret behind the peculiarities of his existence. That sign is DRAWN in the middle page. It slaps you in the face on the page turn, much as it does Octavian when he opens the door.

Towards the end of the book (here comes a spoiler, so go away until you've actually read it), after Octavian suffers a gruesome personal tragedy, entire passages of the book are scribbled out with what looks to be a crow quill pen. The pages of angry lines and ink splotches communicate as much or more about Octavian's state of mind as the paragraphs that came before.

No one would argue that M.T. Anderson's book is not a novel, but does Anderson's inclusion of graphic devices dimish the "novel-ness" of Octavian Nothing? Does it make Anderson less of a "novelist"?

Not to me. To me, it shows that he committed to the telling of his story above all else, and that he is willing to use whatever devices modern printing technology affords to communicate effectively. To me, it makes him a storyteller worthy of my admiration.

Comments

I actually found Tony Long's Andy Rooney-esque rant in the course of researching a paper I'm required to write on American Born Chinese for my freshman comp class. Side note: being a bit of a comics geek and definitely a YA lit freak, I had initially read and enjoyed American Born Chinese when it first came out in 2006, but the rereading and analysis, required though it is, has been truly rewarding in its own way. Long seems to subscribe to the "high art" versus "low art" position espoused by so many critics. Because I am also a gamer, I've seen this argument quite often, most recently in Roger Ebert's criticism of Clive Barker's view of video games as art: http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070721/COMMENTARY/70721001 and N'Gai Croal's (of Newsweek's LevelUp gaming blog)analysis: http://blog.newsweek.com/blogs/levelup/archive/2007/07/30/croal-vs-ebert-vs-barker-on-whether-videogames-can-be-high-art-round-1.aspx Really, whether you're talking video games or comics, it's the assertion that any medium is by it's very nature incapable of being "high art". Deeper than that, it's a matter of subscribing to the view that art, particularly from the standpoint of a critic, is itself exclusive. The most interesting point (at least to me) being made on the video games as art front, which can easily be expanded to the comics as art debate, is the parallel between the way mediums like comics and video games are being viewed now and the way films were perceived at the beginning of the twentieth century. The following article by Stephen Totilo of MTV's gaming blog is a pretty good summation: http://www.mtv.com/games/video_games/news/story.jhtml?id=1562779 My own half-formed "equal but totally different" ideas are articulated and expanded upon in a way that I never could by Jeff Vandermeer in the Bookslut blog: http://www.bookslut.com/comicbookslut/2007_03_010774.php Plus, it mentions American Born Chinese by name, so it's directly applicable. :)

I am a novelist (adult fiction) under contract to NAL who thinks Long's arguments are pompous and intellectually dishonest.

The category in question is "Young People's Literature." The last time I looked, young people's literature was shorter in length (disregarding Harry Potter) and often included illustrations.

I checked the National Book Foundation's mission and it includes promoting reading in under-served communities. If a graphic novel will help connect to a child suffering from feelings of isolation and loneliness, I applaud it.

Best wishes at the Benefit Dinner next week.

#1 is also irrelevant to the actual awards at hand. Yes, prose and comics are different at detectable levels, although there are certainly gray zones between them as you describe. However, the National Book Awards are not limited to prose, never have been limited to prose (there's been a poetry award every year since the first one), and looking over the history of the award the relatively-new Young People's Literature award appears to be a combination of a number of previous categories (the NBA were once much more numerous), including not one but two categories for "picture books".
But that's not where his argument truly lies. It relies on #2, which is ridiculous on the face of it. (And I say that as a published prose and comics writer, without even having to usually go through the effort of actually drawing the comics.)

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