The comics theorist Scott McCloud has a status no one in the comics community should have. At the MLA Conference in Vancouver last January, I attended a comics studies panel at which the respondent chastised academics who cite McCloud and only McCloud, ignoring the 22 years of scholarship that followed the publication of his book Understanding Comics. McCloud compares himself to Sigmund Freud. He may be wrong about everything, he says, but he was the first in his field — or almost the first — and everyone still has to grapple with his ideas.
Whatever his status, McCloud is really a professional amateur, a journeyman who’s spent most of his career pursuing a series of intriguing small projects. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, he wrote and drew Zot!, an independent black-and-white superhero series. He maintains a website, where, pivoting off of ideas from his 2000 book Reinventing Comics, he develops “inventions” that rethink the comics form for the digital age. In 2006, he wrote the instructional book Making Comics. Last month, First Second published his first graphic novel, The Sculptor, which one approaches with the curiosity one once approached the first novels of Lionel Trilling or James Wood. It is the ambitious first attempt by an important critic to write and draw if not the Great American Graphic Novel, then at least a good American graphic novel.
The Sculptor tells the story of a 26-year-old man trying to make it as an artist in New York. He strikes a Faustian bargain with Death that allows him to sculpt any matter his hands touch into the visions he carries in his mind’s eye. In return, he will die in 200 days. He has no immediate family left, and only a few friends he will be leaving behind. After agreeing to the deal, he falls in love with a woman.
I talked to McCloud in Seattle on February 12. We met at a café in the U-District a couple hours before his appearance at the University Bookstore. The following is a pared-down transcript of a one-hour conversation.
The Millions: After reading the [Understanding Comics] trilogy and looking at all the experiments you’ve been doing online, it surprised me to discover that The Sculptor is, formally-speaking, a very conservative book.
Scott McCloud: I agree. I’d describe it the same way.
TM: You’re not playing any tricks. There’s no Chris Ware Building Stories attempt along the lines of “let’s see all the games I can play with this idea called the book.” These are the tried-and-true techniques of graphic-novel storytelling. Why was it so conservative?
SM: Well after trying to make visible all of these various techniques, I wanted, as much as possible, to bury them, to conceal them. I am something of a formalist and one of the formalist tricks that we like to check off as we’re going down the list of things we can do is to impersonate our opposite number. To become a more intuitive pure storyteller and not necessarily call attention to formal artifacts that previously we were hoping to call attention to.
At the same time, I don’t think it was necessarily backwards looking. I was trying to move towards a sort of comic that I wasn’t seeing being done. I would say that in the past decades, there weren’t that many comics like this one, in terms of the way it incorporates reader participation, [which is] something I see in manga but rarely see in American comics. The use of lettering and coloring choices [are] geared towards mapping out the intention and consciousness of the protagonist. I haven’t seen that done much, but I was employing [these concepts] all in the interest of the story. So they lurked quietly in the background and they helped buttress the story.
TM: The question of reader participation is a tricky one. I can read a prose novel and forget that I’m reading words on a page, but it’s impossible for me to read a comic and remain unaware of the fact that I’m reading a comic. That awareness leads to reader participation.
SM: I agree with you to an extent about there being a fundamental reader participation component to comics and that achieving that transparency in comics is a lot harder than it is in novels. But I don’t think it’s impossible. And I think younger readers achieve it much more often than we do as adults. And I wanted to see if I could get that across. It wasn’t easy, but I think I achieved it and I am getting a lot of feedback from people who do have that sensation of being lost, and getting caught up in the story and just seeing the characters as human beings.
In comics, if you open with a street scene, people are going to see drawings of a street scene. And every time they move from one artist to the next those drawings are going to be different. And each change of style just becomes a reiteration of the fact that those are just lines on paper. And I don’t think that’s the case with film and I don’t think that’s the case with prose because…they both relate a world in a relatively seamless way. In the one case [it’s] from the verisimilitude that comes from straight photography. In the other case, [it’s] with the verisimilitude that comes from the consistent texture of our imagination.
Comics puts up a lot of barriers. I think one way to get around those barriers is consistency of approach and length. This is a very long book, so people have time to adjust to my style. It’s not just a little 22-page packet. [Hopefully in my case], by paying close attention to the rhythms of real people in conversation and things like facial expressions and body language, [I] managed to bring a little life into the characters so they pop from the page more than in things I’ve done in the past.
TM: Your characters are good-looking. This isn’t Daniel Clowes.
SM: No, they come from a more attractive, heroic tradition, partially because I don’t have the skill to pull off something less generic.
TM: Are there any other reasons for that?
SM: I’m drawn as a viewer to that, and as a romance I think it would have been entirely possible to tell a story like this while creating characters that were physically unappealing, but I’m just not that good. And so this fell into that general familiar realm of a romance in which both characters are on some level attractive. It’s not a barrier I was prepared to cross when I was trying to cross so many others. Certainly, the business of learning to write and of learning to draw was going to keep me busy from beginning to end. Trying to do something more subtle or more unconventional with the character design just wasn’t within my skill set.
TM: Zot!, by your own admission is filled with many mistakes. It’s not slick.
SM: No, not at all. It was my very first book.
TM: You were learning. The movements aren’t right. You don’t always know where your eye is supposed to go based on the composition of the page. I won’t continue on, because that’s just mean. I have to say for myself that part of what drew me to reading comics or what drew me back to comics when I was 19, wasn’t so much about looking for masterpieces. It was about enjoying the mistakes, enjoying comics as a form of handwriting, enjoying the lack of slickness. I often feel that what we call great comics have a problem, because the better and more slick you make them the more you lose something. This medium makes these mistakes look aesthetically pleasurable in a way that they’re not in a prose novel.
SM: I’ve long been aware of that way of looking at comics and sometimes I share that perspective. But then there are other artists who are prominent exceptions to that. It’s not my primary passion to look for that. It’s not what I hope for in comics. It’s something I accept as something that can make comics warmer and more appealing. But it’s not a prerequisite for things I love in comics. And I do enjoy comics that are much more finely tuned.
I think that Jim Woodring, for example, very rarely has a line out of place. His craftsmanship is absolutely impeccable. I don’t wish that his line was more unsteady or that his pen would run out of ink halfway through. I’m glad that those lines are complete because I think it enhances the work. Likewise, I think Chris Ware’s control is one of the elements of his work that I value.
Nevertheless, when I was working on The Sculptor, even though it was done digitally, I went through great pains to make sure that the line that I used was, if anything, somewhat uneven. [I designed] my brushes in photoshop [with] a pretty grotty line. If you look closely you’ll see that it’s very knobby and imprecise. But that’s simply because I thought it gave it a warmth that I liked rather than that clean vector line.
TM: You made a point in Understanding Comics about how time equals space in comics. These full-page panels at the end of The Sculptor are meant to represent the elongation of a moment. [Note: We are not showing you these pages in order to avoid spoilers.] It’s the comics equivalent of slow-motion. As a reader, I feel it’s my responsibility to read these pages very slowly.
SM: Actually, could I just say that as an artist and writer I don’t feel that it’s the reader’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of me as the storyteller to give the reader cues that would encourage them to quite naturally read at a slower pace.
TM: Yes, but it’s very easy to flip through this and not feel the duration of time.
SM: My hope as a storyteller is that I embedded enough density of detail, enough narrative density that the eye would begin to slow as well. That I put enough speed bumps [in] the growing complexity of those pages, that people would more naturally slow down. I can’t control that, but it’s my intention to give the eye more incentive to move more slowly through those pages, to slow down time. I don’t think the reader has any responsibility at all. The reader, technically, doesn’t have any responsibility to read from left to right. But it’s usually to the mutual benefit of reader and artist to do it that way.
TM: So you don’t believe the reader should be doing work?
SM: No, I just don’t believe in the idea of responsibility. The reader should encounter the work in whatever way the reader thinks is beneficial to themselves. And 99 times out of 100 that means reading the work in the expected way.
TM: How do you handle the differing experiences various readers will have based on the various paces with which they will approach these pages?
SM: Well, there’s an ideal duration and I’m trying to pitch the delivery in such a way that to the best of my abilities most readers will experience it as I intended. I just accept that it’s not mine to control. I can only encourage it.
TM: In a review I wrote of Best American Comics 2014 [which McCloud guest-edited], I noted that great comics, unlike great fiction, are allowed to be sentimental. I think The Sculptor is a case in point. It is a very sentimental book.
SM: I think so. I think that’s fair.
TM: Is sentimentality something you’ve run away from or is it something you’ve actively embraced?
SM: Neither. I’ve just come to recognize it. I’ve been aware of it for some time. It was pointed out to me early enough. I’ve tried to reign it in when I felt it was toxic. In this particular story, I tried to maintain a balance to the benefit of the story. I’ll leave it to others to gauge whether I’ve managed to achieve that balance. I’ve never been sentimental as a deliberate aesthetic choice. It’s more just a natural outgrowth of my own personality. My protagonist in the book is described at one point in the book as having an “irony deficiency.” This is a phrase I copped from Leonard Bernstein’s kids who described their dad that way. I always thought that was pretty funny and also pretty on the mark. And when [I heard] it I realized it was probably true of me too. And so I’ve tried to gain a wider aspect of that part of myself. And to try to be more on guard for the ways that can trip up my work.
In this particular story, I tried to earn whatever emotional effect it might have on people through a number of avenues that I felt at least would cut that sentimentality with something else. But I was looking for a strong emotional effect. It’s what I felt when approaching these themes. I had strong emotional associations with them. So I wanted to convey that, but I wanted to earn those emotions, not just try to go straight from A to B, which I think is one of the downsides, one of the toxic effects of excess sentimentality. Quickly, cheaply conjuring strong emotions, especially sadness. But there’s no way I’m going to completely change my stripes overnight. I’m not going to stop being a sentimental person, no matter how I approach the work. All I can do is just try to be more self-aware in that respect. And I do think that the book is far more self-aware than say my early stuff like Zot!, where I think I was too eager to go from A to B, A to Z in that emotional journey.
TM: What are the talents that you don’t have that you would most like to have?
SM: Simplicity. Eloquence. An automatic drawing instinct that would allow me to invent life naturally in improvisation, rather than having to refer to models, which was a necessary evil in this book. I needed to get a lot of life reference, to get across these gestures. I still feel strongly that the very simple rendering approach can be effective. It just wasn’t appropriate for this particular story, so I was stuck in a more realistic mode of drawing than I might have necessarily chosen. You know I tried some early experiments where this was rendered in a much more simple style and it just wouldn’t have worked, partially because of the sensuality that was involved in parts of the story and partly because it was very much concerned with people as things and that’s better conveyed by a more representational style.
Mostly though, in terms of what I want to improve, it’s not so much that I want to improve it as that I want to expand. There are other things I want to do. I want to explore color. I want to explore much more radical styles. I still have a very, very long wish list in terms of digital comics that I would like to embark on. So yeah, I just want to run to all four corners of the globe, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.
TM: In Reinventing Comics in 2000, you noted that we have yet to get the War and Peace of comics. What for you is the closest we’ve come?
SM: I think for me my favorite graphic novel right now is Market Day by James Sturm. I wouldn’t compare it to War and Peace. I think that’s silly. Actually, I think using War and Peace as a comparison point was silly, but I was younger. I don’t know. There’s a lot we’re still waiting for. But we’re beginning to build that shelf of reliable, strong, perennial works that can give us some comfort that this form does have this potential that we’ve talked about. I pick Market Day because it is one of a very small number of works in comics that I consider bulletproof. I think it’s a bulletproof book. And that’s something I’d like to see more of.
TM:What do you mean by bulletproof?
SM: There’s not a line out of place. There are no excess artifacts to the book. It’s the visual equivalent of the perfectly crafted sentence. I think if it was just all words then E.B. White would be proud of the way he omitted everything needless [if he had written it]. And I think the story is very moving. What it says to me is sufficiently inscrutable that it rewards repeat readings. I like that book a lot.
TM: Do you feel the graphic novel is overrated? At least within the medium. Do you think we grant it a certain prestige that unfairly places it above other forms the comic may take?
SM: I think some graphic novels are overrated. But it goes project by project. I don’t think Jim Woodring is overrated.
I think some people treat us with kid gloves. You know there’s an arbitrariness to critical perception. I think a lot of what you’re asking has to do with the arbitrariness of critical communities’ approach to graphic novels. We have a long critical bias against comics as a form. And I think as that bias has melted away, I certainly think some are willing to give us a pass and be much gentler with some of our flaws.
TM: I’m sorry, Scott, but I don’t think you’ve heard me right.
SM: Oh, I’m sorry. Let’s do it over.
TM: Okay. Do [you think] we honor the graphic novel above webcomics or comic-book serial storytelling in a way we shouldn’t? For a very long time we all considered television beneath movies, but now we consider it the place where really innovative work is being done. Is a similar thing going on in comics?
SM: No, actually I don’t. And the reason is that I think right now the most impressive work that’s been done in the last 20 years is in graphic novels. In my favorite work, the most complex, the most ambitious, and the most gratifying work to me as a reader has been in that realm. There’s some great work in webcomics, but it’s scattered. I think there’s some great work in rethinking serial comics. But I think there’s a reason why the best and the brightest in comics are moving towards lengthier works.
Obviously, it would be a mistake to think there’s something inherently better about the format. There’s not. It was just a mountain a lot of very good climbers wanted to tackle. And that’s still true. I know some people hate the term “graphic novel,” because some people still use it [to signify] an art form. It’s not. It’s a format. But there’s an implicit challenge in the words “graphic novel.” I think a lot of cartoonists see in their mind’s eye when they hear it something they think is worth making but that very rarely comes into existence. And so it makes sense that they would like to give it a try themselves.
“Comics Not Just For Kids Anymore, Reports 85,000th Mainstream News Story,” The Onion announced on July 10, 2012. There’s truth there, but only so much. Critics in The New York Times Book Review, Slate, NPR and The New Yorker now appraise individual comics without questioning the value of the medium as a whole. The cliché still appears in outlets whose editors should know better, but it’s unlikely The Onion could tell the same joke in another 10 years.
The best way to kill a debate is to avoid acknowledging it and comics artists are as guilty as anyone else of prolonging the argument. In 2004, I attended a talk by Art Spiegelman on his September 11 book. He explained his layout methods in detail. It was a good discussion. He also kept defending the right of comics artists to sit at the adults’ table. That was irritating. In 2006, Houghton Mifflin added comics to its Best American series list. Alison Bechdel, the guest editor of the 2011 edition, was ambivalent about working in a “newly legitimized art form.” The problem is generational. Younger comics writers and artists tend not to defend the seriousness of their vocation. If they inhabit the margins of culture, they know there’s nothing intrinsic to the medium that places them there.
Scott McCloud, the guest editor of the 2014 edition of Best American Comics, — the series editor is now Bill Kartalopoulos — is famous for improving the debate. In the early ’90s, McCloud wrote Understanding Comics, a comic book about comic books that explained how the medium reinvents time and space and imagines realities that can’t be adapted to other media. Reinventing Comics, which was published in 2000, was a prescient analysis of how the Internet and the digital world would affect comics readers and creators. He can be as defensive as Spiegelman, but he’s also a smarter interpreter. Like the earliest political philosophers, McCloud points out the obvious and makes it sound profound only because no one before him wrote the obvious down.
The Best American Comics 2014 reads as a sequel to McCloud’s theoretical studies. Previous guest editors instructed readers to thumb through the anthologies and choose work that interests them most just as they would browse the shelves in a comics shop. McCloud asks that you read his anthology in order, cover-to-cover, and that you treat it as a critical narrative. He divides his book into discrete sections, presenting a taxonomy of genres. The book is an argument on the state of comics in the second decade of the 21th century.
What makes a great comic great? McCloud summarizes the criteria:
Is the story built around quiet everyday events or autobiography? Check. Does it have a dark satiric undercurrent? Check. Does our protagonist have a low opinion of him/herself? Check. Is there a complete absence of anything that might remotely remind you of a superhero comic? Check.
He’s being facetious, but the gatekeepers, those who honor what Ted Rall once told me was “the Fantagraphics crowd,” seem to always honor comics that follow at least one of these criteria. Many of the comics McCloud selected from an enormous pile Kartalopoulos gave him follow at least one of the first three and pretty much all of them follow the fourth. (McCloud wanted but was unable to include Matt Fraction’s Hawkeye comics.)
“Great Comics” are not the same as “Great Fiction” or “Great Non-Fiction.” Any New York Times critic would have savaged the sentimentality in Craig Thompson’s Blankets if it came packaged in a prose novel. Bechdel needs her images to sell her wit; in a comic the famous “Bechdel Test” is astute, but the average male reader would roll his eyes if he first encountered her theory in one of the online essays it spawned. A great comic does not have to be sentimental nor simple, but sentimentality and simplicity are not problems for comics.
“High Road to the Shmuck Seat” by Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Robert Crumb from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Viewotron #2. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
That much is obvious in the opening section of McCloud’s anthology, dedicated to the recent work of old masters. In “High Road to the Schmuck Seat,” R. Crumb portrays himself as a happily married aging pervert and not as a raging Mickey Sabbath. His grotesque line drawing, which he’s used throughout his career to express an unrelenting sexual anxiety, now obscures a sweet loving heart. In Charles Burns’s The Hive, teenagers bond over anatomical drawings. Burns’s cleanly-drawn entrails sit comfortably next to his old-before-their-time adolescents. It’s a touching scene. Call it dark sentimentality.
“Drama” (excerpt) by Raina Telgemeier from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Drama. Copyright (c) 2012. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
“Dark sentimentality.” I put the phrase in a Google search and out came a list of indie rock reviews. Take from that what you will, but it’s the dominant mood in the anthology and it bleeds from one comic to the next and one section to the next, from adventure comics to family memoirs. “Raising Readers,” a section dedicated to children’s comics, contains excerpts from two devastating depictions of childhood loneliness, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama and Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault’s Jane, the Fox and Me. The excerpt from Drama ends with a full-page panel of an empty playground. A small-scale strip from Chris Ware’s Building Stories, which McCloud names as the best book of the year, serves as a grim counterpoint with its depiction of a mother discovering the pain of solitude as her child grows older and more independent. Ware and Raina Telgemeier understand the eerie power of bold block colors and negative space. They make clichés sublime. They make small emotions huge.
Hip Hop Family Tree” (excerpt) by Ed Piskor from Best American Comics 2014 edited by Bill Kartalopoulos. Originally appeared in Hip Hop Family Tree. Copyright (c) 2013. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
You may not have to adjust your mood from one comic to the next or one section to the next, but you do have to adjust your eye. The “Testimonials” section includes excerpts from two histories of American music, Frank M. Young and David Lasky’s wonderful The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song and Ed Piskor’s Hip Hop Family Tree. Both books are infused with melancholic nostalgia in as much as modern country and hip hop no longer express the joy of emerging subcultures. They are staid institutions. And Lasky and Piskor explore that nostalgia by employing the grammar of vintage comics. Lasky borrows from early 20th-century comics strips. His stars achieve iconic status thanks to his careful, simple lines. The panels follow a clear linear trajectory, like the steady beat of a country song. Hip Hop Family Tree is a campy re-rendering of a 1980s de-saturated comic. The motive for each comic is the same, but like the subjects they depict, they belong to separate realms.
McCloud asks his readers to notice the ways the comics in his anthology talk to each other. They do talk to each other, but they spend more time talking to themselves. With the exception of the work of Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, not a single character from one comic here could find a home in another. Everyone owns the particularities of their sadness.
In Reinventing Comics, McCloud admitted that no one has written the War and Peace of comics. In the 14 years since, we may have come closer with Fun Home and Julio’s Day. The Japanese may have come even closer, but the truth is comics, at least American comics, don’t need a Tolstoy any more than country music or hip hop needs a Beethoven.
Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, the most widely read comic in this collection, could only have come from someone robbed of worldly ambitions. Her crudely-drawn webcomic describes the wreckage of mental illness, outwardly describing exactly how a depressive feels herself and the world around her. Her style is primitive and humorous and according to McCloud “rewire[s] a million ideas of what ‘good’ comics look like.” She’s writing postcards from the abyss and she’s giving her audience fleeting moments of comfort. And that should be enough. Question: Why does “Great Non-Fiction” about depression produce a William Styron, but “great” comics about depression produce an Allie Brosh? Why do we accept dark sentimentality from our comics but not from our novels?
The modern novel is made up of words printed in a uniform font, but the comic is made up of drawings, clearly the work of another human being, the closest thing our culture still has to handwritten letters. Reading a comic, like reading a novel, is a private experience, but the texture of the thin paper of a comic is far more powerful than that of the pages of a novel, thanks to the presence of the communicator’s human hand. Even a computer drawing that you read on a laptop is connected to an organic body, in the sense that you can acknowledge the presence of a human hand on a mouse or a digital pen. When you read a comic, you are accepting a direct message from one singular honest soul. Your hand touches theirs. That soul can be strange. That soul can be sick. And it can also be oh-so earnest…
The comic book emancipates adults from irony.
In May, I graduated with my B.A. in English. This feels very strange to write in the past tense, but it’s true.
In the course of my studies, I was assigned more than 150 books, from novels to plays to biology textbooks. Perhaps it’s no surprise then that my college experience naturally breaks itself down into books read and unread, loved and hated. I remember reading The Secret History on the campus quad, sitting under a massive oak tree and thinking that this is what college should be like — all shade, dusty books, and lofty conversation, though I certainly didn’t intend to kill any of my new friends. I read selections from my Intro to Philosophy textbook in the basement of my dorm in between loads of laundry, which I had to wring out over a drain in the floor before tossing them in the dryer. I remember rushing through my assigned chapters of Moby-Dick every Sunday night before class, when I would meet with three other students and a professor to discuss symbolism. And I remember my horror when I realized exactly how long “Song of Myself” was at two in the morning. But somehow that horror is gone now, and all that’s left is the quiet joy that came from spending so much time interacting with books I otherwise might never have opened.
In these first few months after graduation, I can already feel myself pulled toward nostalgia, these stories, stresses, and loves. I am not quite ready to let them go. Although I learned from and appreciate all 150, some stand out as particularly defining. Here, in loose chronological order, are some of the most important. My degree in books, if you will.
Don Quixote – My first college assignment was to read five chapters of Don Quixote. I hurried through the chapters and immediately forgot them — the antiquated language escaping me as I read. At the end of my first week of class, I attended a lecture on Cervantes in which a brilliant professor gave a stirring speech about the value of studying the humanities and of the profound life questions Don Quixote addresses. I left feeling that studying English was a noble calling: something I could feel good about, something that would challenge and grow me. I resolved to read more slowly and carefully in the future, so that I, too, could pick out all the profound life questions present in great works and, if I were careful enough, perhaps even some of the answers. But I never finished Don Quixote. It turned out that good intentions and high callings weren’t nearly enough to get me through tangles of plot and language. I later felt grateful that I learned this early—that my first formal reading experience was a failure—because it was only by letting go of some of my grandiose expectations that I was eventually able to force myself through the grunt work of reading difficult books.
Jazz – In my second semester humanities course, I was assigned Jazz by Toni Morrison. I read it, slowly at first and then more and more quickly, until I was sitting in a tiny coffee shop on campus for three hours rushing through the last third of the novel. Jazz has a very particular kind of energy and assumes an agency of its own, and it was this agency that I felt myself responding to and trying to mimic. The narration of the novel seems to be coming from the book itself, a sense that culminates in the stirring final lines: “If I were able I’d say it. Say make me, remake me. You are free to do it and I am free to let you because look, look. Look where your hands are. Now.” They address the reader directly and invite him or her to play with narration, structure, and meaning—to make and remake again and again. Reading Jazz left me feeling hollow and yet full, seeing or imagining that I saw connections between everything, past, present, and future all at once. Jazz is the first book that I truly fell in love with in college, and yet I never reread it, worried that doing so would ruin my connection with the novel and shatter the illusion of perfect storytelling. My classmates thought that I was crazy; none of them liked the novel very much at all, and several didn’t bother to finish it. Asked to identify those last few lines of the book on an exam, one friend misattributed them to The Waste Land. I teased him about this for years.
Looking back, I see that this fast-and-furious method wasn’t a very good way to read, for pleasure or for study. I swallowed all of Jazz in a gulp, rushed through with some growing sense of awe, and then put it down for good. I don’t remember it very well now, just the intense reaction it inspired. Is that enough?
I don’t think so. I wish I had quickly gone back through it, read more closely while that first emotion still lingered, and tried to better understand how the novel was working. I could have learned so much. Funny enough, I feel the same way about that first year of college. I wish I had tried better to understand what was happening, whom I was getting to know, and who I was becoming. I can’t remember what my friends and I discussed until dawn when we were first getting to know one another, or why we drew bad portraits of each other or where they went. I don’t know who lived down the hall from me or remember the name of my history professor. What did we talk about in class when we talked about Jazz? And how was it that, when I went back to Texas, life with my family felt foreign, distant from reality? Now all I have are bits of emotion with little context or cause, which is all I have left of Jazz, too.
Wide Sargasso Sea – In the spring semester of my freshman year, I was allowed to register for my first proper English class. As part of the course, I was assigned both Jane Eyre and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, a postcolonial prequel to Charlotte Bronte’s novel that tells the story of Rochester’s first wife, Antoinette. I had read Jane Eyre before, twice, and wasn’t looking forward to having to go through it again; I wanted to read new books and fresh authors, not the same novels I’d been assigned in high school. But reading Wide Sargasso Sea was a turning point in my English career—a moment that I can point to and say, “There. That’s it. That changed it all.” This book taught me that it was possible to critique the classics; I didn’t have to agree with them or accept their versions of their stories. I realized that every book was leaving something out—that there was almost always some other story to explore, some angle that wasn’t at first obvious—and that looking for these would open books wider than I thought possible. I realized that reading is a political act, as is writing. I talked about the book nonstop. Although I never mentioned Wide Sargasso Sea in any major written assignment and was never graded on my understanding of the novel, its influence underwrote all my studies for the next three years.
As I Lay Dying – I was intimidated by Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying when it was first assigned, and this turned out to be an appropriate response, though I found myself swept up in the story in spite of myself. I loved and was confused by the novel in equal measure. I liked this story of a family who seemed incapable of understanding each other—driven by a common goal but also by individual desires, hopes, and despairs. I flinched when they tried to set a broken leg in concrete, and again when Dewey Dell was scammed by an unscrupulous doctor’s assistant. I squirmed when I read Addie’s dark chapter and her final words: “People to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.” I thought about how everything was words to me and worried that maybe words weren’t enough—no matter how badly I wanted them to be. I saw the book as a kind of puzzle that surely I could put together into a complete masterpiece if only I read closely enough, paid enough attention, was sensitive to subtleties, but then again, wasn’t it just words, too? How could I get beyond that?
For all of this thinking and rethinking, my class only spent a total of three hours discussing the novel. I was left with more questions than I knew how to ask and an unsettling sense that I was not even close to understanding what I had read. I asked questions of this text: How was it that Addie could speak? What happened to Dale’s mind? Why was Vardaman’s mother a fish? Why was all of this speaking and thinking and fish-ing happening together? Then, I tried to answer them on my own. I realized that maybe I wouldn’t be able to put all of the pieces and words of the story into perfect alignment ever, and maybe it was better that way. I began to learn how to accept unknowns and how to live with an imperfect knowledge of things, even as I tried to fill in the gaps of my understanding, that space behind the language.
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – I was confused by this poem as much as I was by As I Lay Dying, though in a different way. Although the density and ambiguity of As I Lay Dying felt essential to the work, the Rime seemed to be almost careless—something that was meant to be understood and yet couldn’t be. It’s not that I couldn’t follow the storyline, but that it was impossible for me to interpret it: to fit the images and events of the poem together into something meaningful and satisfying, into a whole. I was assigned to read a collection of scholarly essays on the poem and hoped that these perspectives, which came with names like “reader response theory” and “new criticism,” would help clarify Coleridge. Maybe I didn’t have to live with ambiguity after all. But the criticism only intensified my confusion, and the jumbled arguments of the scholars added a layer of irritation to my interactions with the poem. They didn’t agree with each other, and when I could follow their arguments, I didn’t agree with them either. I began to wonder exactly what purpose literary criticism served—academics writing articles to argue with other academics while readers like me remained confused and overwhelmed. Then I learned that the poem can be sung to the tune of Gilligan’s Island. This was too much; this made no sense. I could not sing Gilligan’s Island and study psychoanalytic theory at the same time. I gave up, but I was humming the song for days.
Medieval Literature in general – I enrolled in a class called Medieval Romance. I had no idea what this meant, and I wasn’t particularly enthused about having to admit that I was studying “Romances,” but it was the only class open by the time I registered. I read Chrétien de Troyes and wrote a harsh critique of the abusive gender dynamics in Erec and Enide, paying attention, for the first time, to specific word choices and the way patterns in action could reveal underlying obsessions in the text. I discovered a talent for reading Middle English. I was assigned a romance titled Richard Coeur de Lion, in which King Richard eats the heart of a lion. I read a long French poem called “Silence,” in which a woman dresses as a man, struggles with the allegorical figures of Nature and Nurture, and becomes a successful and valued knight until Merlin exposes her. I read the Gest of Robin Hood and wrote a long paper on social inequality and status inversions present in its short fyttes.
Through all of this reading, I gradually realized that these medieval writers were asking many of the same questions and struggling with many of the same social issues that I was encountering in my 21st century university. They wondered about the role of government and what made a good leader. They were curious about gender and identity, social structures, and economic inequality. And I, too, wondered about all of these things: how my world was broken and how it could be fixed. I felt more connected with history and recognized myself as part of a large and continuing stream of humanity and culture, but I also realized that I was not cut out to be a medievalist. There is no Middle English language setting in Microsoft Word, and I couldn’t stand the rows and rows of red underlining that appeared whenever I tried to type quotes from Chaucer.
Spring and All – The last semester of my junior year, I approached my Modern Literature professor about completing an additional research paper for Honors credit. She agreed and asked me what writer from our syllabus I wanted to study. I wrote her a long email requesting permission to write about Wallace Stevens because I loved what work of his I’d read and wanted to expand my formal understanding of poetry. Except that instead of typing Wallace Stevens, I got confused and typed William Carlos Williams. Too embarrassed to admit my mistake, I spent a semester studying imagist poetry and the crazed prose of Spring and All. My professor didn’t like Spring and All and couldn’t understand my supposed obsession with Williams, but she tried to be patient with me. When I cautiously offered my explanations of this text to her, she smiled. “Sometimes,” she said, “it really doesn’t mean anything, but nobody will admit it.” I agreed with her completely; no matter how many times I read it I couldn’t force the apocalyptic, manifesto-style prose and the poems about blooming flowers into any relationship that felt very convincing. This made my twelve pages much harder to write. I swore to always double-check author names before sending any more emails, and I learned about how important it is to sincerely love any work that takes more than week to complete. I also learned how to complete work and learn from research I didn’t love at all. I was told that this was good practice for life post-grad.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight – I was assigned to read Sir Gawain and the Green Knight three separate times during college, each time in a slightly different translation. By the third reread, I began to wish that the Green Knight would just behead Gawain at the beginning of the story and let that be that. I wrote an email complaining to the dean about the sameness of the English curriculum that I never sent. My roommates bore the brunt of my wrath instead and could eventually recite the general plot of the poem without ever having picked up a copy. They loved me anyway. I decided that Sir Gawain and the Green Knight was a true test of friendship, not chivalry, and at the end of my junior year, I sold all my translations of the poem for a total of $5.
The Book of Night Women – At the beginning of my senior year, I took a class in which my professor paired contemporary books with thematically similar works written before 1900. On the first day of class, she apologized for assigning so many troubling readings and warned us that The Book of Night Women by Marlon James, which she had paired with Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and which we weren’t scheduled to begin for another three months, was going to be traumatic. She was right.
The Book of Night Women tells the story of Lilith, a young slave girl on an 18th century Jamaican plantation, and it is unflinching in its portrayal of violence and suffering, of the incredible variety of possible pains, and of people desperate to escape misery. It is about destruction, redemption, and the horrors that good people are capable of, but on the first read, I could only see the horror. Thirty pages into the first reading, I was shaking and nauseated, so I put the novel down for a few hours, then read another thirty pages, and stopped again. In this way, I finished the book over a long and harrowing week. It was brutal but brilliant, and I found myself admiring what James was doing in this work even as I recoiled from its violence and darkness. I worried about these characters and about my extreme sensitivity to reading their stories. I was tempted to think James was being deliberately alarming, but I knew the novel was more than that. Was James challenging 20-something, middle-class white students like myself to understand our history and the suffering it had caused? Was I too thin-skinned, or was mine exactly the response he hoped for? Or was he just telling a story in as honest a way as possible? I was reminded of Wide Sargasso Sea. Reading is political. Stories have power. When I finished the book, I cried.
During the first class period spent discussing the book, my professor joked that she should find us a group therapist. I felt tempted to press her on this. Every student in the room looked shocked, freshly sensitive, all our nerves exposed and raw. I hoped to someday write something as affecting, if different in every other way. More than this, I hoped to stay thin-skinned.
Fun Home – During my last semester, I didn’t take a single English class but instead spent the spring writing my final thesis on the works of Virginia Woolf and Alison Bechdel, particularly on the ways in which they use houses to discuss both creativity and censorship. I kept (and continue to keep) writing personal essays about houses, and I wanted to see how these masters of essay and memoir handled rooms, hallways, facades, and interiors.
Studying graphic memoirs like Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? turned out to be surprisingly difficult because I didn’t know how to academically describe or explain the way an image works as part of a text. I read books like The Poetics of Space and Understanding Comics in an attempt to figure this out and ultimately did a passable job, but I realized that there are whole genres, entire fields of literature, writing, and study that my formal English degree hadn’t touched. Even so, I feel confident that I have learned enough to figure the rest out in time. This is cheesy, but I feel good about it anyway, though I can’t quite bring myself to reread my final thesis.
Now that I am free from the structures of school, class, and assignments, I feel a little directionless and slightly overwhelmed. I’m not sure where to pick up my life in books, what authors or works to begin, or in what order. My current reading list has contemporary poetry on it, mostly pulled from friends’ recommendations, and some essay collections I’ve been hoarding for a while, but it also has Middlemarch and The Brothers Karamazov. I’ve never read Alice Munro or Montaigne. A friend lent me Jesus’ Son four years ago, and I’ve never read it either. Those 150 books aren’t nearly as much as I once thought they were. There is so much writing that I am completely ignorant of, and I’m excited to keep reading.
Image via [email protected]/Flickr
Fifteen things about my year in reading:
1. My most immersive reading experience of the year took place in late January and February as I embarked upon Dorothy Dunnett’s House of Niccolo series, followed by the Lymond Chronicles. Twelve long and involved and completely transporting books later, I closed the cover of the final installment with a profound sense of loss.
3. The book I read this year that I most wish I had written myself: Elif Batuman’s The Possessed.
4. The book I read this year that I don’t understand why I hadn’t read sooner, it is so much exactly what I like: Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend.
5. Three excellent novels I read for the second or third or fourth time this year and found just as fantastically good as I had the last time: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Cintra Wilson’s Colors Insulting to Nature, Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
6. Another important reread: Mary Renault’s trio of novels about Alexander the Great. The influence Renault’s books had on me as a young teenager cannot be overstated.
7. The indispensable and fascinating nonfiction book that I think everyone should read: Randy Frost and Gail Steketee’s Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.
8. The most intellectually stimulating nonfiction book I read this year: Pervasive Games: Theory and Design. The only other book I read this year that is likely to have such a pronounced effect on my next novel (The Bacchae excluded) is Andrew Dolkart’s architectural history of Morningside Heights.
9. The most intellectually stimulating book I reread this year: Genette’s Figures of Literary Discourse. In a similar vein, I also reimmersed myself in the writings of Victor Shklovsky and read Scott McCloud’s inspired Understanding Comics.)
10. I found Keith Richards’ Life incomparably more interesting (a better book!) than Patti Smith’s Just Kids. The latter also suffers in comparison to Kristin Hersh’s Rat Girl, which I highly recommend.
11. Some of the top-caliber crime writers whose books I read for the first time this year: Arnaldur Indridason, Liz Rigbey, Caroline Carver, Deon Meyer, Ake Edwardson, Asa Larsson, C. J. Sansom, Jo Nesbo.
12. Writers whose new books I devoured this year because I like their previous ones so much: Lee Child, Sigrid Nunez, Kate Atkinson, Robert Crais, Ken Bruen, Diana Wynne Jones, Terry Pratchett, Jilly Cooper, Joe Hill, Tana French, Jo Walton, Connie Willis, Joshilyn Jackson.
13. Top 2010 guilty pleasure reading, both in its guiltiness and in its pleasurability: Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel books. (Richard Kadrey’s books are too well-written to count as a guilty pleasure, but they are immensely pleasurable.)
14. I found Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom excellent, but it did not have a deep effect on me.
15. In September, I got a Kindle. It has saved me a lot of neckache while traveling, some dollars that might have been spent on full-price hardbacks and the pain of reading poor-quality mass-market paperbacks when I can’t find anything better. The best value-for-money discovery: Lewis Shiner’s superb novel Black & White, available at his website as a free PDF.
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Tom writes: First of all, thanks for suggesting Our Band Could Be Your Life. I am about halfway through and its great. My question is unrelated. It is: are there any books that attempt to bring together cognitive science and comic books in a similar style to Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics? If not, do you know of any more general books about the cross-section of literature and cognitive science? I am looking for something that discusses the scientific specifics while remaining readable and interesting. Thanks.I held a grudge against cognitive science for a long time because of a really bad class I took my freshman year of college. My professor spent much of the semester showing us home movies of her toddler learning how to talk, and I finished up with a bad grade and no knowledge of cognition at all. Now, if Scott McCloud had taught the class, I might be singing a different tune. Understanding Comics is a very special, and peculiar, book. For those who haven’t read it (I have delved into it here and there, but I will read it all the way through sometime soon), McCloud writes a comic that teaches us how we perceive comics as a storytelling medium. It’s very meta. The literary equivalent would be a novel about how and why we understand novels. Because of how peculiar McCloud’s book is, it doesn’t seem likely that there are any comparable books which take either comics or literature as the subject matter. There may, however, be a couple of books that expand upon the base of knowledge provided in Understanding ComicsMcCloud provides a bibliography at the end of Understanding Comics. From among the books he lists as source, the most useful for your purposes seems likely to be Comics & Sequential Art by Will Eisner. Eisner is considered to be the father of the graphic novel, and this book, the textbook for a course he teaches, discusses the principles of graphic storytelling. This book will go much more into detail from an artists standpoint than McCloud’s book does, but the central idea remains tapping into the human capacity to understand a visual narrative.I was very intrigued by the idea of a book that is a melding of both literature and cognitive science and I suspect that there is some dense novel out there that wrestles with this idea (or perhaps Borges has it covered), but I was also curious to see if there is any readable academic literature on the topic. After doing some research, there is indeed a lot of UN-readable literature on the subject, but one slim volume did catch my eye. Metaphors We Live By was written by a linguistics professor and a philosophy professor. The book explains how metaphors, one of the more expressive aspects of language, can tell us a lot about the human mind. It certainly seems rather dry compared to McCloud, but it might prove useful as another perspective on the intricacies of human creativity.
I’ve returned from my trip home with lots of booty. Many of these books have been added to my reading queue, which has swelled to encompass the entire length of the shelf on which it sits. Time to get reading. For Christmas I received a couple of military histories by the venerable brit, John Keegan, The First World War and Intelligence in War: Knowledge of the Enemy from Napoleon to Al-Qaeda. I’m excited about both of these. I know little of the details of World War I beyond that it was a gruelling and brutal trench war. I think I mostly know this from reading All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque when I was in high school. The second is interesting because the issue of intelligence seems to have recently become much more important to national defense than firepower and bombs. I also was gifted a copy of John McPhee’s book-length panegyric to the American shad (The Founding Fish as it were), a topic that would shatter me with boredom were it not for McPhee’s otherworldly ability to write engaging, entertaining prose about any topic under the sun. My mother continued her tradition (one that has proved rewarding over the years) of giving me a serendipitous art book. This year’s selection was Juan Munoz. I know next to nothing about Munoz, but, as is often the case with these art books that my mother gives me, I’m sure I will suddenly notice his work everywhere and by the year’s end he will have become one of my favorite artists. My birthday rolled around, too, as it so often does, a mere eleven days after Christmas, and some more books came my way. You could count the number of poetry books I have on my book shelves on one hand, but with the addition of C. K. Williams National Book Award Finalist, The Singing, which includes one of my favorite poems from recent years, “The Hearth,” I now have one more. I also was presented with a copy of Scott McCloud’s fascinating meta-comic about comics and why we can’t help but love them, Understanding Comics. Hope everyone had a great holiday, as for me, I had a blast, but I’m happy to get back to the grind, so to speak. Expect more soon, I’ve got lots to write about at the moment.
Ms. Millions and myself are expecting a number of house guests for Thanksgiving, so there probably won’t be much posting on the old blog for a few days. Luckily for you guys, though, I’ve brewed up a post chock-full of fascinating info for all of you. First off, Time Magazine columnist, Andrew Arnold put together a list of 25 best graphic novels of all time as part 2 of a series commemorating the 25th anniversary of the birth of the graphic novel, which, according to him (and many others), was the publication of Will Eisner’s A Contract With God: And Other Testament Stories. I haven’t read it but it’s supposed to be incredible. At any rate, Arnold has put together a great list that includes a couple of my favorite books of all time. Here are the ones from the list that I have read.From Hell by Alan Moore was lent to me, forced on me really, by a friend of mine who is really into comic books. I was skeptical, but this one turned out to be pretty riveting. The art, especially, is magnificent: noirish fields of black create an ominous mood that permeates the story.Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware: This is one that really transcends the genre. When I read this, it made me wonder why people aren’t making graphic novels out of everything all the time. There are so many stories out there that can be made fascinating by the artists’ pen. Everyone should read this book.Maus Vols. 1 & 2 by Art Spiegelman: It’s hard to put into words how incredible these books are. If anyone requires proof that the graphic novel medium, when wielded expertly, can bring more to the table than the plain old written word, then these books provide it. Reading Maus is an emotional experience, and I think a lot of that emotion comes from reading a tragic story rendered in a format that seems so innocent. Everyone should read these two books, too.Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud: I’ve talked about this book before. There is something about comics, about the format of comics, that makes them enchanting and that makes them peculiarly well-suited for telling stories. I had always just accepted this as fact, but McCloud decided to find out why, and the result is a phenomenal book — itself a comic — that is both illuminating and entertaining. I should also thank Scott for pointing me in the direction of this list via his blog.More Mutis ManiaThis is good. This is really good. I open my email today to find this email from friend and fellow Alvaro Mutis & Maqroll the Gaviero obssesive, Brian:Man, oh, man, do I have some info for you! I was just casually glancing through a copy of Video Store magazine, when you wouldn’t believe what movie I came across…. “Ilona Arrives with the Rain.” Yep, apparently, it’s a Columbian film from 1996 that’s billed as “A dangerous romance full of international intrigue…. Based on the novel by award-winning Columbian author Alvaro Mutis.” Not sure if its really any good, but am still very curious to see it. A DVD is being released by Facets, and Amazon has a release date of December 16. Here’s the link: Ilona Arrives With the RainI’ll definitely be checking that one out.MoreMy friend Edan, who loves cookbooks, wants everyone to know that Home Baking: The Artful Mix of Flour and Tradition Around the World is a great new book by globe-trotting husband and wife team Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid. And since we’re talking about cooking, here’s a quote from the book I’m reading right now: “‘Restaurants make lousy hobbies. You have to be obsessed and driven and completely out of your mind to own one.”But you had–”Two, yes. But Alice,’ Pete said almost tenderly, ‘I’ve been totally nuts my entire fucking life.'”
Some of you may know that I’m a pretty big fan of comics, or to put it more broadly, stories told in a visual format. I’m not heavily into the superhero stuff, but I love newspaper comics and graphic novels as well as cartoons and animation of all kinds. So, naturally, I was pretty excited when I discovered Scott McCloud a couple of years back. McCloud is the author of two fascinating books, the first, Understanding Comics, is a study of visual storytelling. It is presented in a very clever comic format, and even if you never intend to create your own comic one day, it brings up a lot of interesting stuff about how we convey perceive narratives. A second book called Reinventing Comics addresses the many doors that have been opened to the medium by the advent of computers and the internet. Today I happened upon McCloud’s website. I’m not sure why I never thought to look for it before, but I’m glad I found it. There’s a blog, a daily improvisational comic, and tons of other comics by him and others. Check it out. It’ll keep you busy for a while.