Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Should Graphic Novels Be Eligible for Book Awards?

Are graphic novels books in the same sense that novels are books? This is a question that Tony Long of WIRED had definite opinions about when he wrote about American Born Chinese before it won the National Book Award in its category. Gene Luen Yang, the author of ABC, responds here. Because he's a teacher, I especially wanted to know what he had to say. It was worth the time.


dan said...

While reading Tony Long’s original post about “comic books, or graphic novels, or whatever you want to call them,” as he wrote, I had the overwhelming sense I was engaging with a narrative that was mediocre and half-@$$ed. It could be that Long himself cued me to this reaction at the same time he reminded his readers that we are living in the “Age of Mediocrity.” It also could have been when he confessed that “I have not read this particular "novel" [ABC by Gene Yang] but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here.”

(So Tony, you’re telling me that you haven’t read or even seen the book--which in your opinion isn’t even a book despite the words and pictures bound between two covers which tell a story—but that you feel like you have something worthwhile to share about its eligibility for a literary award? Would you please sir, explain?)

But in fact the explanation never came. For someone who openly proclaims a fear of change and the evolution of production, and has been given an “official” space to ramble incoherently about it, Long comes off as sadly uninformed and really quite lazy.

While his conclusion was riveting—“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”—I was left with an overwhelming sense of…I’m going to go out on a limb here…mediocrity.

As a copy chief at a respected print and online periodical, Mr. Long should really spend more time reviewing and maybe even investigating those topics he is familiar with. My first suggestion is that Mr. Mediocrity go back out on that limb and jump up and down, cry some more about how much harder it is to write a novel with just words, rather than with multiple modes, and enjoy the fall when… “SNAP!!”

Monique P. said...

Tony Long's line of thinking is dipping its toes into a pool of censorship. On the National Book Award's website ( it lists not only the winners of the award each year, but also the finalists. American Born Chinese was up against a title called Keturah and Lord Death (a "darkly gorgeous medieval fairy tale", "interweaving elements of classic fantasy and high romance" ( It was also up against Sold, a book told in vignettes about a Nepali girl sold into sexual slavery. Looking at these titles alone it's interesting to think about why Tony Long chose to go after American Born Chinese instead of a fantasy novel, or a book about sexual slavery. If students can't learn anything from a "comic book" surely they will be corrupted by fantasy and romance. Surely they don't need to be reading about situations involving sexual crimes in foreign countries. Such topics can surely only cause corruption in their young, impressionable minds. The students should probably only be reading the classics, or perhaps only the most literary of fiction.

Long won't acknowledge American Born Chinese as a book, so I looked up "book" on Merriam Webster to see if maybe I was missing something. Among the many entries were: "a. A set of written, printed, or blank sheets bound together in a volume. b. A long written or printed literary composition. c. Something that yields knowledge or understanding."

Aha! So, either Long:
A. Doesn't view American Born Chinese as written or printed, or doesn't view the sheets as sheets, or doesn't see them as bound together,
B. Doesn't believe American Born Chinese is literary,
C. Doesn't believe American Born Chinese yields knowledge or understanding.

These options trouble me. Long must know the book is composed of printed sheets. The definition of what is "literary" and what isn't is often unattainable and debatable. But I would argue to my grave that the majority of books---no matter how poorly written or banal the subject matter---always reveal SOMETHING to the reader, even if it's something unexpected. And since we are discussing an award-winning book about identity and culture gaps, how can one dare to think the book has nothing to offer? Is this a question of prejudice on Long's part? Or a question of his own opinion of what is literary and what isn't? Or something else?

The first step would be for Long to actually read the book and inform himself before making a so-called informed opinion. It reminds me of my father believing me to be a witch after reading the Harry Potter books. If only he would read them and see that demons aren't lying in wait between the pages...