Disclaimer #1 – I have only read one of these books – the first one kicked off Canada Reads, Jeff Lemire’s Essex County. I loved it, and actually thought it had a chance to win, because unlike some members of the panel, I was judging it on its merits, not it’s medium.
Disclaimer #2 – I’m not the biggest fan of CanLit. Unfortunately, this panel has reminded me of one reason why – very often, it tends to reward the same thing, over and over.
Alan Moore has a famous quote (rant) claiming that there are no graphic novels – they’re all collections of comic books. By and large, he’s right – when people call Watchmen a graphic novel, they’re wrong. It’s a collection of issues that were released monthly, in comic book format. However, the genre is changing – people are now producing original illustrated works in book format; not something that comes out monthly that you get at your local comics shop. Essex County is one of those works.
With all the strides that this genre has made in the past few years, it appears it has a long way to go to gain acceptance in this country. The New York Times has had a graphic novels bestseller list for ages now, something no national Canadian paper has. If you go check out that NYT list, I’ll bet you that it’s not entirely populated with spandex-clad superheroes. However, some people think that that’s all this genre has to offer. I imagine some of this year’s Canada Reads panel share that viewpoint. Listening to the judges open their debate on Monday gave me the impression that despite this novel’s inclusion on the Best of the Decade list (voted in by Canadian readers) that this panel wasn’t ready to read one, or judge it on its merits.
Let’s have a look at some of their justifications for kicking it to the curb:
- “It is part of the Canada Reads' mandate to get more people to read and that would mean reading a book in a more traditional format.” Um, traditional format? Stories with pictures have existed since people lived in caves. Stories with pictures have been around longer than stories with words.
- “Birth House has had an enormous following from men.” Really? I don’t know very many men jonesing to read novels about midwifery. Also, I’m wondering where this information comes from, as I’ve always wanted to track book sales by gender, and it’s impossible to do.
- “We’re not going to inspire people to read with Essex County.” How is this true? Are we going to inspire any kids to read Unless? Or Best Laid Plans? Maybe some high school kids…but I think Essex County might speak to them a little more – it can be enjoyed by a pre-teen, a senior citizen, or anything in between – and I have my doubts you can say the same thing about The Birth House.
- “This is not a novel … It’s a collection of short stories.” Actually, you can be both. This work is a collection of linked novellas (with overlapping characters) that make one complete work. Kind of like Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, or The Nick Adams Stories. Hemingway liked brevity too, so I guess he wouldn’t be popular with this panel, which leads me to the next point:
- “It’s too short.” Well, Next Episode won a few years back, & it’s a long short story, barely a novella at 136 pages. There is a lot of story in Essex County, and you can’t really convince me otherwise. And since when does quantity = quality?
- Voting it off because we have issues with literacy in this country is pretty lame. Claiming it won’t help people read is a falsehood – all people learn to read with pictures, and then move on to prose.
- Comparing illustrated fiction to tweeting, & calling it a shortcut. Illustrated fiction is not a shortcut to storytelling; it’s another form of storytelling. Is film a shortcut to novel writing? Is short film a shortcut to feature length film?
- ... And then pretending it wasn’t voted off due to the format was just weak.
Of course, all these criticisms sound like the same old attacks that have been levelled at ground-breaking works, every time an art form’s conventions are challenged. The truth is that Lemire’s work has something to say about loss, loneliness, family, rural life, and professional hockey dreams. Sounds like a Canada Reads winner to me.
I’m not one of those guys who cries reading a book. If I was, though, this one would have got to me, and more than once. If you’re already on the illustrated fiction bandwagon, read this book. If you’ve yet to read fiction in this form, and your mind is more open than certain Canada Reads panelists, read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Justin has worked in books for a long time, as he always enjoyed reading them, & is still too undisciplined to actually write one … though he suspects if he got it done, it wouldn’t sell very well.
He enjoys eclectic non-fiction, narrative history, and stories about: men wearing hats and carrying guns, loners, odd superheroes, & anything written by an overheated Southern crank.