Yes, Essex County IS Literature


One of the big stories circulating around the comic news and blogosphere this week is the elmination of Essex County, Jeff Lemire’s excellent graphic novel, from CBC’s Canada Reads contest.  Charged this year with finding “the essential Canadian novel of the decade”, hundreds of novels were voted on by the public, with the top ten then being narrowed down to five by a panel of five celebrity judges, each choosing one of the ten novels to personally champion.  Indie music star Sara Quin chose Essex County, making it the first ever graphic novel to make it to the long-running contests’ top five shortlist.  Before going any further, I should take the time to say that this alone is a major achievement on Jeff Lemire’s part, and the success – and hopefully, the recognition it will bring – is richly deserved.

However, once the decision-making got taken out of the hands of the reading public, and into the hands of a small group of largely middle-aged panelists, it got a sound trouncing, denigrated and dismissed over the course of the first televised debate, before ultimately getting eliminated in the first round of voting 4-1.  Tellingly, the studio audience booed at this decision, and reportedly there was a lengthy debate after the show stopped recording between the audience and the panelists over the book’s ejection from the running.

Some of the judges seemed almost reluctant to cast off Essex County.  Ali Velshi, probably the most eloquent of all the panelists, admitted that going in, upon first hearing the shortlist, he was determined to vote out Essex County on the very principle of it being a graphic novel, until he actually read the book (his first graphic novel, he claims not to know what the term meant before reading it) and found himself won over and torn over whether or not to keep it in the running.  Lorne Cardinal, meanwhile, claims that the characters in the novel connected with him more than any of the other novels in the shortlist outside his own pick, and his decision to eliminate it was based more on format than content.

But the novel’s most stubborn detractor throughout the debates was Debbie Travis, who said that calling Essex County an essential novel would be like claiming that tweeting 140 characters made you a writer, that the graphic novel format was a “shortcut” to proper storytelling, and that classifying it as literature would be “dumbing down” the very concept of the word.  Debbie kept on talking over Sara and missed the point, but Sara made a quality rebuttal to this when she asked if going to an art gallery and studying the paintings to draw meaning from looking at images was an act of “dumbing down”.  Though the panel ignored the point, the audience responded with applause.

Debbie Travis said that she read Essex County inside an hour and a half, that she could just flip through the pages and the whole thing went by in a flash.  But I’d say that says more about shortcomings on her part than on the part of the graphic novel format.  I could skim through a prose novel too, picking up the general gist of what was going  on, but not really letting the words sink in or comprehending all the depth and nuance.  Same goes for a novel with pictures in it as well as just words.  If you’re only reading the words in Essex County, then yes, it’ll be a quick read.  But the images are packed with so much depth, emotion and meaning, that not taking the time to dwell on them means you’re only reading half the book, if even that.

And while we’re on  this subject of format, and whether the graphic novel format should disqualify a novel like Essex County from being classified as literature, let’s think about it a bit more.  Are we suggesting that this format of the prose novel is the only one capable of being classified as literature?  What about Shakespeare?  He’s probably the figure most classically associate with high literature (“It ain’t Shakespeare”, etc.) but his works are not novels, but rather plays, documents with stage directions originally meant for directors and actors rather than a wide reading audience.  Furthermore, these were plays originally performed in London’s Globe Theatre in front of rowdy, drunk, screaming crowds, with fights breaking out on the floor in front of the performers and prostitutes mingling  amidst the audience offering their  services for after-theatre entertainment.  The works of Shakespeare, John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi, George Bernard Shaw’s Man & Superman, Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming, The Changeling by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus… all plays that I studied at Honours level at Glasgow University in an English LITERATURE course.  Art can be populist, and it can come from humble, even derided origins, and I’d say it’s only a matter of time before more people start acknowledging comics as a legitimate form of literature too.

At one point in the debate, Lorne Cardinal says, “Making words and stories, making you think, that’s what literature should be, it should be a way to make people think of things they don’t normally.”  A fair assessment of what literature is.  And I believe that, if these judges were able to set aside their own prejudices against the format, they would accept that there’s no reason a graphic novel can’t fit under such a definition.  Rather than taking something away from this experience, the inclusion of images acting in conjunction with words can enhance the power of the reading experience.  Jeff Lemire’s Essex County is poignant, heartbreaking, powerful literature, and it deserves to be recognised as such.

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