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October 28, 2006

A silly little gripe on Wired News

Eddie Campbell just sent me a link to the following silly little piece on Wired News, by Tony Long. Here’s Long's article, followed by some of why it strikes me as a load of crap:

Let me slip into my moldiest Andy Rooney sweater here, because I know how much you guys love it when I whine about the Age of Mediocrity. (We're in the midst of it now, in case you're new to this bimonthly screed.) Gene Luen Yang is a teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who also happens to be a fine illustrator. He produced a graphic novel (or "comic book," as we used to call them), American Born Chinese, which has been nominated for a National Book Award in the young people's literature category.

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.

Juvenile literature is a fairly new category (1996) to the NBAs, which have been around since 1950. It's possible that no author wrote a great book aimed at that audience in the past year, but I doubt it. Juvenile literature attracts a lot of first-rate authors. Always has.

Sorry, but no comic book, regardless of how cleverly executed, belongs in that class.

First off, I would point out that the award in question is called The National BOOK Award. That alone makes excluding a Graphic Novel from competing a spurious demand.

Although, gathering from Mr. Long’s piece here, there are certain underlying values I’m inclined to agree with – say his esteem for literary worth, and an appreciation of the skill and craft that makes a true author, I nevertheless find his opinion misguided and shallow – “no comic book, regardless of how cleverly executed, belongs in that class.”

Rather than taking to task each assertion, or the tone of the missive, let’s step back a minute: isn't it finally time the debate over the standing of the graphic novel within modern literature be left behind? Will it finally elevate from an obsession over the formal aspects of comics vs. prose -- and move into substance, storytelling, character, plot, voice, these much more interesting depths?

Obsession over the form overlooks the fact it’s A VEHICLE, and while there are some differences in the crafts of novel and graphic novel creation, fundamentally it's mostly about STORY, the work of AUTHORS, and in the best cases, a discerning reader's reading experience. (This is why I have no interest in being a champion of the Graphic Novel form per se, even though I sound like one on many of my talks to booksellers and librarians -- but no, I champion creators, voices, talent that moves and touches me, creators who speak a universal storytelling tongue, and in the case of First Second, they happen to be working in this chosen medium.)

And yes, a good part of the production of comics continues to be marred by sloppy writing or lesser standards, but the same is true of any other book format. That doesn’t stop masterful works to keep appearing and earning the praise they deserve. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE is certainly one of those.

The jury members of the National Book Award are current with our times, and show an openness of mind that should hearten those who love books and good reading.

Finally, the challenge – now being taken up by the likes of Gene Yang – is not one of formatting or fighting for the acceptance of the medium – it’s one of quality, sincerity, skill, thought and feeling provoking. Scott McCloud’s most impressive new book MAKING COMICS touches on this, and should galvanize the current and next generations of comics creators to aim at new heights of excellence.

Perhaps Mr Long will have a look at ABC, before discounting the jury’s response to it. Perhaps that will dispel the unfortunate snobbery of his own article, or as Neil Gaiman puts it far more eloquently on his blog in his short response to the Wired News piece:

I suppose if he builds a time machine he could do something about Maus's 1992 Pulitzer, or Sandman's 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, or Chris Ware's Jimmy Corrigan winning the 2001 Guardian First Book Award, or even Watchmen's appearance on Time's Hundred Best Novels of the 20th Century list. Lacking a Time Machine, it seems a rather silly and antiquated argument, like hearing someone complain that women have the vote or that be-bop music and crooners are turning up in the pop charts.

I like the bit where he says that he hasn't read the comic in question, but he just knows what things like that are like. It's always best to be offended by things you haven't read. That way you keep your mind uncluttered by things that might change it.


I've read and loved American Born Chinese; I've read and enjoyed some of the other nominees in the Young People's Literature category. ABC has as much going for it as any of the other nominees. Mr. Long also neglected to consider that this particular category has included poetry books, books that combined poetry with photography, and nonfiction books as well as fiction. His whole argument that "comic books" (since he rejects the term graphic novel) should not be compared to prose completely breaks down when one considers that the NBA judges in various years have already had to consider different formats and types of literature in this category.

Also, a graphic nonfiction work won a Sibert Award honor several years ago; the Siberts are awarded to informational books for young people and are administered by the Association of Library Services to Children (ALSC), a division of the American Library Association. That book was Pedro and Me by Judd Winick. I have a feeling Mr. Long didn't know this, but his argument was invalidated five years ago.

Wow, I have to say that I'm thankful that Mr. Long so invalidated his own viewpoint with his admission that he hasn't even read "American Born Chinese". It's not that often that someone expressing a controversial theory so readily supplies the information needed to discount their own statements. Bravo, Mr. Long, you really made it that much easier for us all to dismiss your snobbish arguments.

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