As someone who once spent a whole summer refusing to leave the house in anything except his Superman costume (to be fair, I was only 23 at the time), I was tickled to death by the announcement last week of a Costa Book Awards shortlist that included not one but two ‘graphic novels’, and the subsequent declaration by the chairman of next year’s Man Booker judges that he would be open to the idea of such things being submitted for that as well.
Oh dear Lord above, the laughable, lumbering, creaky old juggernaut that is the British literary establishment. What, now you decide to accept comics as a literary form? Seventy years after they were last truly popular? Forty years since they were the genuine expression of the tortured poetic underground? Twenty-one years since the greatest work of art by any human hand was published, and just happened to be a comic?
You idiots. You miserable, slavish, pompous old greyhairs.
For a start, they are called comics. They do not need po-faced euphemism. Nobody calls them ‘graphic novels’ any more. Nobody except teenage boys trying to slip hentai manga past school security. In America, which is the home of the genre, they are called more often ‘comic books’, spoken as if all one word, and with an East Coast accent (since that is whence they come), so: ‘-karmicbwurks’.
To call them graphic novels is to presume that the novel is in some way ‘higher’ than the karmicbwurk, and that only by being thought of as a sort of novel can it be understood as an art form. As if Art Spiegelman’s two-volume envisioning of the Nazi Holocaust as an attempted elimination of mice by cats (the aforementioned ‘greatest work of art by any human hand’) can be dignified in some way by inclusion among things made by Dawn French, Jeffrey Archer and Alan Titchmarsh.
‘Graphic’ has nothing to do with it. It’s the wrong word. When I told my wife they were going to let graphic novels into the Booker prize, she said (genuinely), ‘What, like Fifty Shades of Grey?’
I read nothing but karmicbwurks until I was 14. My father was distraught until he came round to the idea that my reading anything was better than my reading nothing. But then I grew up, and did not really need them any more. I continued to read the truly excellent comics, like the ones that have been cited this week as ‘worthy of comparison’ with actual books, such as Watchmen, V for Vendetta, Violent Cases and The Dark Knight Returns, but these are indeed ‘only’ comics and while much ‘better’, more subtle and thought-provoking than, say, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy (but then so is any random issue of The Amazing Spider-Man), should not be thought of in the same breath as literature, nor would want to be.
They are their own thing. They do not need your imprimatur, O pompous reader of literary fiction. They are basically for -children, and for men (yes, men, really, men) who are a bit too thick to read proper books, as I was for many years, and still sometimes am, like if I’m tired or hungover or on a plane.
They are a genre of their own. And genre fiction — which is not a description of quality but of nature — usually doesn’t wash with prizes. We’ve rolled over on historical fiction because Britain doesn’t really produce anything else. But romance, crime, horror, they don’t cut it. Ian Rankin is ten times the writer Arundhati Roy or Ben Okri ever were, but we wouldn’t give him the Booker prize. We’re just too pompous, too old, too queeny.
So stop waving your comics around and pretending to be hip, you judges, and give your prizes to another tedious slog through the life of some long-dead English king.
Giles Coren is a writer for the Times.
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