30 October 2011

Labels, Literature, and Linnaeus

Recently, the Literary Omnivore* and I were having a discussion about the term "genre fiction," as used to describe things like fantasy and science fiction.  She has argued that the use of the label to segregate and denigrate whole categories of works is unfair, and prejudices readers against those works - they're not "real literature" if they're "genre fiction."  She has a good point, and her latest post is about a similar distinction between "comic" and "graphic novel."

The term is being used to separate “worthy” works from “unworthy”, which is not the work the label for a medium is supposed to be doing! ... It’s easy for me to go in circles—on one hand, I loathe the practice of privileging certain works out of a much maligned genre or medium, but on the other hand, there is a difference between a volume of The Unwritten and Fun Home.
This touches at the heart of a problem with such labels themselves, as I will demonstrate.  And I think the reason she goes in circles on this - as I do myself - is a recognition of the necessity for distinguishing labels as well as their limitations.

A "graphic novel" is not just a bound collection of a run of comics, to most people.  That's called a "trade paperback."  Rather, "graphic novel" is a nebulous, privileged sort of label for bound comics that are considered particularly good.  It's hard to say what exactly deserves the label... does Astonishing X-Men Volume 1: Gifted deserve to be called a graphic novel?  It's clever and interesting, written by Joss Whedon - why shouldn't it receive that name?  Isn't refusing to call it a graphic novel just a way to prejudice an audience against it, out of a view that "superhero comics" are lowbrow?

On the other hand, as noted by the Omnivore, it is very difficult to put such collections in the same class as Maus, Watchmen, V for Vendetta, or 300 - all graphic novels with a cohesive storyline and much higher production values.  There does seem to be some difference there; Alan Moore, one of the greatest names in comics, once described his view of the distinction thus:

I've no objection to the term 'graphic novel,' as long as what it is talking about is actually some sort of graphic work that could conceivably be described as a novel. My main objection to the term is that usually it means a collection of six issues of Spider-Man, or something that does not have the structure or any of the qualities of a novel, but is perhaps roughly the same size.
Although Moore would later change his position, I think this is one of the best statements of the view: a graphic novel is a serious story with many qualities of a novel, told in a graphical format like a comic strip.  It is a term of convenience, just like any label: because readers need an easy way to discuss a certain group of work that shares this common quality, they need a short label for that group.  This classification and labeling impulse has been around essentially forever.  Aristotle's Poetics is one of the first and best examples, using a detailed set of criteria and principles to break down all literature into a select set of categories, and then discussing what should be the goal of each.  That's the purpose of any Linnaean system for art: to make those sorts of discussions possible.

There are many critics of the practice.  Neil Gaiman (another legend of the industry) often tells a story about what he sees as the imaginary difference between "comic" and "graphic novel":

When I was in England four years ago I was at a literary party. It was one of these Christmas parties that magazines throw. I was invited and I went along and I got talking to a guy who turned out to be the literary editor of the Sunday Telegraph. He asked what I did. When I answered that I write comic books, he looked at me as if I had confessed to shoplifting or something. So we're standing there having a drink and he's looking uncomfortable, but before I can walk away he asked what kind of comic books I write. When I answered they were the Sandman series, he looks at me, says, "Hang on, I know you, you're Neil Gaiman. My dear fellow, you don't write comics, you write graphic novels."
So as far as I can tell, it's just a difference between being a hooker and a lady of the evening. Basically. The nice thing about calling them graphic novels is that people who can't quite cope with comic books can cope with them under the term "graphic novels." And in the case of something like the Sandman series, it's more or less a marketing term. You've got an epic sort of story with Sandman. All ten volumes I tend to think of as a graphic novel. It's 2,000 pages long. It's one huge, great, wonderful, gigantic story.
Unfortunately, if we were to discard the distinction between "comic" and "graphic novel," by the next day someone would have coined a new way to distinguish between Astonishing X-Men and V for Vendetta.  It wouldn't arise with any malice, but probably in some review of a new comic.  It would look something like this:

"This new collection of the run of Limited Comic Line is a masterpiece.  It's a bound storyline, by which I mean the sort of self-contained and excellent story that you see with Art Spiegelman's Maus.
And then this term of "bound storyline" would catch on, or maybe a similar term from a different review, as people compared and discussed.  I would argue that these labels are not malicious, just useful and necessary.

Return to the "genre fiction" label, which has a similar controversy.  It is my belief that it is both reasonable and necessary to categorize fantasy, science fiction, and romance as genre fiction.  In the last thirty or forty years, each of these genres has come to have their own community, standards, and language.  Recognizing these classifications is a very necessary thing when discussing any book from these genres: literature is a conversation, and unless you recognize the speakers, you're not going to be able to keep up with the dialog.

Take the fantasy genre as an example.  Strictly as a genre, fantasy comprises stories about magic or other supernatural elements, usually in a created world.  But when considered as a form of "genre fiction," (a frustrating term, but the one in use), fantasy has further differences.  The fantasy community is differentiated from a general audience in what it expects and how it receives any given book.  Some of the most important qualities are the fantasy world-building (the invented histories, cultures, attributes, etc.), the degree and drama of the heroism in the book, and the innovation of the supernatural elements.  Often, these aspects are more important than the actual quality of the writing and traditional aspects like dramatic pacing, full characterization, or the like.

So when I consider a fantasy book, I usually try to consider it both as a general work of fiction, as well as a work of fantasy genre fiction.  When I think of The Lord of the Rings, I judge it to be excellent as fantasy (indeed, the apex of the genre) while also excellent as a work of literature.  But because fantasy values has different values and goals, and speaks mostly to its own community, this is very rare.  Often, the best of fantasy is only a middling work of literature.  I think it is thus, for example, with such blockbusters as George R.R. Martin's  A Game of Thrones or Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman's Dragons of Autumn Twilight.  As works of fantasy, they're superb, but I would only hesitantly recommend the former and never recommend the latter to someone who wasn't a part of that fantasy community.

This is not to say that the problems recognized and articulated by Gaiman and the Omnivore do not exist.  There is a ghettoization that occurs with the terms of "genre fiction," "fantasy," and "graphic novel."  A truly excellent comic series, like Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, might be overlooked or denigrated if it isn't deemed a graphic novel.  Or an amazing fantasy series like Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant could be largely ignored, because it is seen as belonging to that insular fantasy community and probably catering to their desires.  Further, the very label itself implies certain assumptions and limits about the books.  Readers approach a work of fantasy differently when it's labeled such - they expect dragons and damsels.  That's often unhelpful.

Thomas King, a First Nations writer, has come up with a good articulation of this problem of labels, and one way to sidestep it.  In his essay "Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial," he has mentioned how the labeling of his works about aboriginal peoples are often labeled as "post-colonial," which he resents.

While post-colonialism purports to be a method by which we can begin to look at those literatures which are formed out of the struggle of the oppressed against the oppressor, the colonized and the colonizer, the term itself assumes that the starting point for that discussion is the advent of Europeans in North America. At the same time, the term organizes the literature progressively suggesting that there is both progress and improvement . No less distressing, it also assumes that the struggle between guardian and ward is the catalyst for contemporary Native literature, providing those of us who write with method and topic. And, worst of all, the idea of post-colonial writing effectively cuts us off from our traditions, traditions that were in place before colonialism ever became a question, traditions which have come down to us through our cultures in spite of colonization, and it supposes that contemporary Native writing is largely a construct of oppression. Ironically, while the term itself - post-colonial - strives to escape to find new centres, it remains, till the end, a hostage to nationalism.

As a contemporary Native writer, I am quite unwilling to make these assumptions, and I am quite unwilling to use these terms.
King's solution is an alternate set of labels: "tribal, interfusional, polemical, and associational" to describe Native writing.  In his view, these labels avoid the worst aspects of the "post-colonial" label and more accurately describe Native works and their goals.  I won't get into the finer distinctions and definitions of each (read the essay if you're interested, it's pretty good) but the point is that a new set of labels can avoid the problems of the old.

The immediate and unfortunate result, of course, is that new labels will swiftly introduce an identical and new set of problems.  Such a complicated parsing as King proposes is difficult to use in everyday discussion.  While more accurate, they accordingly are more selective: "interfusional fiction" describes a very small group of books that only a few people are likely to want to discuss.  They also have the flaw of being relatively counterintuitive - "post-colonial" gives at least some idea of what it means, whereas "associational" will inevitably require a supplied definition.  And finally, even though they discard the idea of colonialism as the center of any discussion of Tribal works, they introduce their own inherent limitations from their terms.  Should these classifications catch on, in twenty years another writer would complain about them and propose his own new set.

This is the fate and inherent limitation of any set of labels.  By distinguishing and selecting, they also prejudice and segregate.  They are useful and necessary, and we can only strive for an accuracy of terms and fairness of definition that will do the least harm.  Ultimately, then, while I have sympathy for complaints about "graphic novel" and "genre fiction," I can only stick to those labels - until I hear better ones.


*The Literary Omnivore is my current role model when it comes to bookblogging, and reading her site is what prompted me to put up a directory of my reviews.

1 comment:

  1. You know what I think about this particular approach towards the term "genre fiction", so I won't get into it.

    All labels—well, all words—will pick up connotations and have expectations and prejudices attached to them. We can only alter our approach towards them and do our best to make sure that the distinctions are logical, necessary, and nonjudgmental. Obviously, this will change from person to person, but I think being as transparent as we can about the terminology is one of the best things we can do.

    And thank you for the compliment as your role model for blogging! Review directories are amazingly useful.