I like to read. An important part of my word intake is a daily newspaper; my newspaper of choice is The Independent. A frequent contributor to the paper is John Walsh; he writes a regular column and a number of restaurant reviews, and these are always entertaining, informative, well-written.
So this isn’t going to be a hatchet job. It’s a response. Nothing more.
Mr. Walsh, in his column of 22nd November (though in its online form it’s listed as being published on the 21st), said this:
Extraordinary to see graphic books turn up in two categories in the Costa Prize, among the novels and biographies. I wish I admired comic-strip fiction as the French do, but it always seems to me a bastard version of the real thing. As one shortlistee, Joff Winterhart, says, “My book isn’t a novel in the conventional sense, it’s a comic with pictures and speech boards.” Quite.
Good novels are made of words, without drawings that helpfully show the expressions on characters’ faces. It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.
Well, first of all, it’s not just the French, it’s also the Belgians and the Japanese and the Brazilians and the Americans and, to an increasing extent, it’s the British and the rest of the world.
What I have to take issue with is the idea that a novel which “isn’t a novel in the conventional sense” is somehow lesser than a “good” novel, “made of words”. A good graphic novel stands up quite easily against a good prose novel, and can be better than a great deal of merely adequate prose novels. Also, if we define a “good” novel as Mr. Walsh does, then where do we begin to exclude works that stray from that definition?
A quick look across my own bookshelves reveals works by Charles Burns, Chris Ware, Harvey Pekar, David Mazzuchelli and many others: graphic novels which, using Mr. Walsh’s definition, are not “good” books. But I also have “good” books such as Alisdair Gray’s Unlikely Stories, Mostly which relies to a large extent on typographical tricks and illustrations to convey certain meanings and events. I have a copy of B S Johnson’s Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry, some of which is told in the form of entries in a book-keeping ledger. I have three copies of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (one of which is an adaptation in graphic form by Martin Rowson, who also works for The Independent) which relies on typographical tricks just as Gray does, but also features such things as the infamous ‘black page’, which allows the reader to imagine for themselves what happens in that sequence. Tom Wolfe’s new book, Back To Blood, uses all manner of :::::!!!!&%@ strange \\\((())¢#ª≠ typography. And! Punc-tu^ation as a narrative device. The Independent’s reviewer said
it seems remarkable that at 81 he should still be writing with such verve. Back to Blood is energising, fascinating – and utterly exhausting.
To be fair, that reviewer wasn’t Mr. Walsh, and we shouldn’t expect all writers for a particular publication to hold or express the same opinions.
All of the above, and many more besides, are novels “made of words” which, just as a graphic novel does, use story-telling devices other than words to convey their narrative and their subtext. Are these no longer “good” books?
Moving on to Mr. Walsh’s second point:
It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.
I’m afraid, Mr. Walsh, I have to take this as something of a personal insult. As I’ve said, I read all manner of books. Some of those books are highbrow literary fiction, some of them are pot-boilers, some are biography, some history, some science texts. Some of them are graphic novels. Some, like the different versions of Tristram Shandy, are both, and the different media reveal different sides of the work. But it seems that because I enjoy novels that have illustrations, I’m either a child (and why should age be a barrier to literature? Surely a child can enjoy ‘grown-up’ books as much as an adult can get pleasure from Alice In Wonderland or even You’re A Bad Man, Mr. Gum) or a bit of a thicko.
So it looks like I'm not good enough. Obviously I have “trouble keeping up” and I’m going to have to adjust my bookshelves accordingly and get rid of everything for which I’m too slow. Goodbye to Thomas Pynchon, Julian Barnes, Evelyn Waugh, Amis pere et fils, both David Mitchells, Jim Thompson, Don deLillo, Alan Coren, Albert Camus…
Oh, and I suppose The Independent’s out as well. Which is a pity, as I happen to know that one of Mr. Walsh’s senior colleagues on the paper is a big fan of comics. Let’s hope that, at the next big editorial meeting, he doesn’t have trouble keeping up.