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.