Tony Long, copy chief at WIRED, comes right out and says it: comics aren’t good enough to get nominated for the National Book Award:

Gene Luen Yang is a teacher in the San Francisco Bay Area who also happens to be a fine illustrator. He produced a graphic novel (or “comic book,” as we used to call them), American Born Chinese, which has been nominated for a National Book Award in the young people’s literature category.

I have not read this particular “novel” but I’m familiar with the genre so I’m going to go out on a limb here. First, I’ll bet for what it is, it’s pretty good. Probably damned good. But it’s a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don’t constitute an art form or that you can’t get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It’s apples and oranges.

We’ll note that most “copy chiefs”–at least in our experience–are what are commonly known as “sticklers.” And sticklers like “rules.”

Neil Gaiman (where we first saw this link) has a response. Of course, who would take the word of a crummy, comic-writing Brit?

I suppose if he builds a time machine he could do something about Maus’s 1992 Pulitzer, or Sandman’s 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story, or Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan winning the 2001 Guardian First Book Award, or even Watchmen’s appearance on Time’s Hundred Best Novels of the 20th Century list. Lacking a Time Machine, it seems a rather silly and antiquated argument, like hearing someone complain that women have the vote or that be-bop music and crooners are turning up in the pop charts.

I like the bit where he says that he hasn’t read the comic in question, but he just knows what things like that are like. It’s always best to be offended by things you haven’t read. That way you keep your mind uncluttered by things that might change it.

Oh, snap!


  1. “He’s familiar with the genre”? According to the American Heritage Dictionary genre is “A category of artistic composition, as in music or literature, marked by a distinctive style, form, or content: “his six String Quartets… the most important works in the genre since Beethoven’sâ€?.

    So this prat is saying he’s familiar with autobiography, as a genre, and an illustrated comic autobiography cannot possibly compare with an all text example. There is a word for close minded people like that, a polite one, bigot almost fits the bill.

    The award is called a national book award, most dictionaries define book as a collection of printed work bound along one side. There is no definition stating what type of printed matter makes it a book.

    The stick up this guy’s backside is starting to cause me to have a migraine. Just wait until someone starts on about the Post Literate Society.

  2. I’ve already faced people who’ve told me (at workshops about getting graphic novels into libraries) that comic books are responsible for dumbing down the American populace. Oh yeah. Anyone who’s going to claim a book isn’t worthy of an award nomination had better damn well read the book first, in my own opinion. Me – I was dancing the happy dance when I heard the news about American Born Chinese getting the National Book Award nomination.
    And I agree with Peter – graphic novel is a format, not a genre. People who call it a genre don’t know anything about graphic novels.

  3. You know, I could have tolerated it if he said, “This is an award for people who write word books” but when he went on to say that it’s not just that it’s a different art, it’s a lesser art, that ticked me off.

    I mean, look, if I were a painter and an award for painting went to a dancer, it would annoy me.

    but don’t say that one art is inherently better or worse. People forget at one time that “real literature” was theater and novels were tawdry little gathering places for romantic stories and other pulpy stuff. Of course, there were diamonds in that rough, too, just like comics, but it took a while for them to get accepted.

    The irony, here, is that it’s largely a technology story. Funny that a tech geek doesn’t get this (who really cares what the people at WIRED say about art, anyway).

    Novels were new because printing was new, of course. As all new artforms, it took a while for them to be accepted as equal to their older peers (in this case, theater) in the world of art. Now novels are accepted, and pure writers denigrate comics.

    Comics are growing in popularity in part because tastes are changing but also because technology is making it more and more easy to make and deliver them now, just like technology made it easier to deliver long, printed stories in the early days of novels.

  4. Um, I know I say stuff like this too much, but I will try to never buy Wired. I never have, but I will try to persuade others not to as well. Rather than expand upon things, i think Mr. Gaiman nailed it pretty well. Wired is antiquated.

  5. So sad, so very, very sad. As noted above this attitude has been encountered a number of times. The sadness here is a person of influence and voice, with a built-in audience advocates this position.

    I agree he has a right to his opinion. But the fact he hasn’t even read the book boggles my mind. And Gaiman is right. The list is a mile long, and then some, in dozens if not hundreds of categories, where someone, or something shouldn’t have consideration for some award in some era. It’s called progress.

    But we’ll always have the Archie Bunkers in this world. Those still holding on, and last to catch up. I’d expect as much from most Op-Eds…. but coming for WIRED magazine takes the bloom off this particular rose. So much for progressive thought. I see the box WIRED wants illustrated literature to fit in, and I don’t like it.

  6. “That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.”

    My copy of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has, well, not all words. There are pictures too. And almost every page has a number.

  7. Devils Advocate:

    What if prose books were suddenly winning Eisner, Harvey, Ignatz Awards?

    I mean, I understand folks wanting more mainstream recognizition and book awards certainaly do just that. Their industry is bigger than ours. And I can even understand that there is already a tradition of graphic novels winning those awards.

    But if the shoe were on the other foot, I can see some complaining about how prose novels already have their own award ceremonies, why do they need to be considered for ours? There are probably a number of excellent books that could have won those awards and use the exposure, but they lose out to something that’s not in the same medium.

  8. Jamie, I don’t necessarily have a problem with that argument, but when he follows it up with passages like ” …the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories.” (i.e. comics as a medium are inferior to prose); “If you’ve ever tried writing a real novel, you’ll know where I’m coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award … is exceedingly difficult” (as if making a graphic novel is easy as pie); or, in the pièce de résistance, ” Juvenile literature is a fairly new category (1996) to the NBAs. … 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,” utterly dismissing the literary worth of American Born Chinese without even having had the sense to read the book in question, my hackles get raised.

    He goes from a particularly ill-informed critique of a book he’s never read to an utter dismissal of comics as an art form, saying that comics can never rise to the level of a novel. Which, I’ve got to say, is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.

  9. Ultimately, it comes down to whether the story is good enough to compete against the other finalists? One of the reviews at Amazon certainly would lead you to believe it is a complex enough story, so in that sense, great.

    Graphic novels have at least three layers, the story, the art, and the combination of both, and fans of graphic novels appreciate them in that regard. (I’ll probably be taken to task for that, but so be it). The art in a graphic novel can convey a lot of information that the author of a prose novel also does, but the prose author has to do it with words but doing so without interrupting the flow of the story. Judging one genre against the other is very difficult and I don’t envy the judges jobs on this.

    I’m married to an author who writes within a sub-genre that also gets short shrifted when it’s up against other genre novels in a contest. Some judges actually refuse to judge that particular sub-genre, leaving a Zero to be averaged in. So you see there’s plenty of genre prejudice to go around.

  10. I’ve been a Wired subscriber for something like ten years and they’re normally pretty cool about comics content (for example- glossy Paul Pope.) This one (online only?) article isn’t at all indicative of the general editorial attitude toward comics over there.

  11. Chad, I don’t agree with his dismissal of graphic novels, but I can see why somebody doesn’t like GNs winning awards for ceremonies they thought were devoted to prose books.

  12. The Young People’s Literature category of the National Book Awards is NOT devoted only to prose books. The category is actually rather broad – Young People’s Literature can include picture books for younger children as well as the fiction, nonfiction, and poetry that have been nominated. Several books of poetry have been nominated alongside fiction and nonfiction books over the past ten years, along with fiction using different formats – Monster by Walter Dean Myers had a young man writing a journal and viewing his trial as a form of screenplay. Breakout by Paul Fleischman flashes back and forth from a teen running away and gettting caught in a huge traffic jam and her monologue eight years later. The point is, in this particular category, right from the beginning the judges have had to compare nonfiction, fiction and poetry in one category and choose one winner. Adding a graphic novel to the mix this year is not such a big change, based upon my observations of this award over the past ten years. How do you think the judges compared a biography of Woody Guthrie with any fiction title? Or Carver: A Life in Poems with An Na’s A Step from Heaven or True Believer (the NBA Winner in the Young People’s Literature category in 2001)?
    Based on my long experience as a librarian who has been involved with ALL kinds of books over more than a quarter-century and as someone who has served on national library award committees, the guy at WIRED doesn’t have a leg to stand on with his complaint.

  13. Chad I think you missed the point, Harveys etc clearly make it known they are comic awards so if Martin Amis next prose novel won a Harvey there’d be room for complaint, this is a National “Book” Award we’re talking about, graphic novels are books. If the cast recording of “Rent” won the award I’d have some sympathy for this guy’s complaint.

  14. Peter has made the point I was going to make. Eisner, Harvey, and Ignatz awards were created specifically for the comic book/graphic novel form of storytelling. They almost had to be created because of the complete lack of respect comics and graphic novels were subject to in the larger literature world.

    This is similar to how Horror and Science Fiction films are mostly ignored by the Academy during Oscar time so they decided to create their own award ceremonies.

    Just as Lord of the Rings can win a Saturn award and an Oscar, American Born Chinese can win an NBA and and Eisner if it were merited as such.