Putting the Novel Into Graphic Novel

Critic Rebecca Skloot doesn’t realize that we’re now living in the 21st century. Either that or her conservative view of what a novel is and should be prevents her from accepting a book on its own merits. She seems to think that those funny little comic things that all the kids are raving about (such as Alison Bechdel’s excellent Fun Home) can’t possibly qualify as novels.

Let’s set the record straight.

Here’s the definition of “novel” from dictionary.com: “A fictional prose narrative of considerable length, typically having a plot that is unfolded by the actions, speech, and thoughts of the characters.”

In E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Forster defined a novel as “any fictitious prose work over 50,000 words,” but even he was smart enough to note that this was too clinical a definition. “Part of our spongy tract seems more fictitious than other parts, it is true: near the middle, on a tump of grass, stand Miss Austen with the figure of Emma by her side, and Thackerey holding up Esmond. But no intelligent remark known to me will define the tract as a whole.”

David Lodge observes in The Art of Fiction: “However one defines [the novel], the beginning of a novel is a threshold, separating the world we inhabit from the world the novelist has imagined. It should therefore, as the phrase goes, ‘draw us in’.”

The fundamental difference between a graphic novel and a novel is that the former is constructed of pictures and captions and the latter is constructed of words. But books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home share sustained narratives, with thoughts, speech, and consciousness presented through fictional characters. Are these to be discounted because their form is different? I’d argue that these two books certainly fulfill Lodge’s requirement of a reader being completely submerged into another world. As such, I think it’s safe to say that the two books can be quite judiciously deposited within Forster’s malleable tract.

I am troubled by the noun modifier “graphic” applied to “graphic novel,” but I do understand that it is necessary to draw people into the comics form. Hell, if a James Wood hard-liner like Mark can find a graphic novel to suit his tastes, then anyone can.

What I don’t get are critics like Skloot, who seem perpelexed by the notion that graphics or comics can’t be weaved into some kind of narrative form or that they can’t sustain an emotional resonance. Book critics of this ilk have no problems accepting the photographic nature of the film and appreciating that medium on artistic merits. Why then do they fail to make the jump into graphic novel form?

Of course, if a picture is worth a thousand words, then, by that token, Maus and Fun Home qualify as bona-fide epic novels.


  1. But… aren’t Fun Home and Maus… non-fiction? The quandary of the term “graphic novel” is the prevalence for nonfictional works to be called such.

  2. I don’t see Skloot discounting anything–in the comments she calls Maus an amazing book. Or am I wildly mis-reading her post as being nothing more than an inquiry into the labelling of a particular sub-group (non-fiction in graphic narrative form) of a broad literary genre (graphic narratives)? It’s an interesting question, from a certain angle (what do we call something that doesn’t have an official title yet?) and I don’t think it shows her being “perpelexed by the notion that graphics or comics can’t be weaved into some kind of narrative form”.

  3. Fair enough, Darby. I don’t have much to go on here other than the blog post in question and I have no idea what Skloot thought of the two books. My quibble here involves how categorization along these lines might affect one’s ability to appreciate a book.

  4. Darby is right, my post wasn’t discounting graphic narratives in any way. Call me conservative, but my one requirement for a novel is that it be fiction (or at least labeled as such). Fun Home and Maus don’t qualify as novels — graphic or otherwise — because they’re memoirs. My post had nothing to do with whether graphic books of any genre are legit. I was responding to an email from a Critical Mass reader who questioned applying the term “graphic” to these memoirs — not because anyone doubts the literary merit of those books, but because the term “graphic” may scare away silly readers who think “graphic” means “X-rated” instead of “cartoon-illustrated.” We wouldn’t want that, because we like graphic memoirs (if you read the comments section you’ll see that I lamented the fact that the NBCC never gave Maus an award, which I think it deserved). You say your quibble here is about “how categorization along these lines might affect one’s ability to appreciate a book.” If that’s the case, perhaps re-read my post, because that was precisely my point.

  5. Derikb is right too … the other point of my post was that labeling books like Fun House and Maus as graphic novels does a dis-service to the books because they’re not novels, they’re memoirs.

  6. Heya Ed. Your ol’ pal Tom here. Hate what you’ve done with the place. Needs more graphics, punk.

    The REAL question here is (drum roll): What’s important?

    What should we spend our brain time on? Whose work, whether it be in the realm of words only or words and pictures, lends itself towards slow and deep digestion that will eventually contruct into a new/expanded perspective on matters big and small?

    I believe the word “novel” trumps the importance of merely a “book”, a “reader”, “paperback” or even a “pulp”. The word itself seems to bring some weight ot the table, yes?

    “Comic”, however, intimates relations with the like of Rodney Dangerfield, Andrew Dice Clay, Steven Wright and to a much lesser extent, Carrot Top.

    So then here we are, with the odd combination — odd, but technically accurate — of “graphic novel”. My point is you’re getting caught up in semantics but not purpose. In particular, the purpose of “Maus” was two-fold: as a fictional memoir. Finctional, in its delivery system; memoir, in its report.

    Seriously, we need to rethink our thinking on things. Categories shouldn’t be discarded altogether but when something new arises and it connects with enough of us, it should be embraced and understood in the best possible light. And if that “best possible light” is a “novel” then I’ll happily accept “Maus”, “Summer Blonde”, “Ice Haven” (Eight Ball 22), or “Dark Knight Returns” as novels, graphic or otherwise.

    Ed, I think I have one of your socks from when we shared an abode four years ago.

  7. What would the film “Naked Lunch” be? Not the source material mind you, but the film by Kronenberg? I’d say “Fanciful Biography”. Sometimes flights of fantasy can deliver to the audience, be they veiwer or reader, a reaction closer to what was really felt in a life event than a bland visual report of the event itself.

    Cats and mice.

    Would this make it any less fiction? Any less true?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *