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(Three grahic novel book covers)
Teresa Wong’s ‘Dear Scarlet,’ Jeff Lemire’s ‘Essex County,’ and recently nominated for a 2020 Canadian literary prize, Seth’s ‘Clyde Fans.’ (Arsenal Pulp Press/Penguin Random House/Drawn&Quarterly)

Graphic novels are overlooked by book prizes, but that’s starting to change

In the midst of a global pandemic, almost nothing is proceeding as normal. And yet, on a dim October morning, the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist announcement went brightly, briefly and virtually streaming into homes and revealing the five books that had moved one step further towards winning Canada’s largest and arguably most prestigious literary award.

In some ways, however, this business as usual was a disappointment. After all, the Giller recently changed its submission guidelines to allow graphic novels to be submitted to the prize, and even more recently announced that a graphic novel was, indeed, included on the longlistClyde Fans, by highly acclaimed Canadian author and cartoonist Seth.

But after raking in praise and aplomb for featuring a graphic novel on its longlist for the first time, the Giller — like so many other book prizes — just couldn’t bring itself to put Clyde Fans on the shortlist. Business as usual, indeed.

And are we really surprised?

Prizes reflect readership

Book prizes have long overlooked and excluded graphic novels from their submissions: if not officially barred from entry (as with the Giller, which excluded graphic novels in its submission guidelines for a quarter of a century), then unofficially (as with Canada Reads, which does not specifically bar graphic novels from consideration but hasn’t shortlisted one since 2011). As a result, graphic novels are a kind of literary elephant in the room: a format of literary fiction which many, including book prizes, refuse to recognize as “literary” fiction.

This is, however, beginning to change. Increasingly, book prizes are beginning to reflect a reality many readers, professors, librarians and publishers have known for years: that graphic novels do, in fact, have serious literary value. Graphic novels span a wide variety of content, and they’re visual narratives with the same complexity and depth as purely textual novels. It’s taken decades, but public perception has changed. And now, too, so are prizes.

After all, “good literature” is not — and never has been — a static category, but rather an ever-shifting, nebulous definition built collaboratively by anyone who’s ever picked up a book. After decades of marginalization, graphic novels are now inarguably coming to be included in this mainstream definition of what is “literary.”

Furthermore, this process of acceptance is helped in no small part by book prizes’ increasing support of graphic novels; the connections between canonization and prizes are well studied. When literary institutions hold up a graphic novel as one of “the most powerful pieces of fiction published this year,” as the Giller did when it announced its longlist in September, the reading public begins to rethink their own biases against what they think is or isn’t literary — whether they know they hold those biases or not.

A troubling trend

When we start to look at the history of graphic novels and book prizes, however, a more troubling trend seems to spring up: that despite their increasing presence on book prize long- and shortlists, graphic novels don’t ever seem to win book prizes.

For instance, Sabrina, a graphic novel by Nick Drnaso about “the story of what happens when an intimate, ‘everyday’ tragedy collides with the appetites of the 24-hour news cycle,” was longlisted by The Booker Prize in 2018 — the first time a graphic novel had ever been longlisted by the Booker.

Like Clyde Fans, it too, failed to make the prize shortlist. Earlier this year, Canada Reads similarly longlisted — but didn’t shortlist — graphic memoir Dear Scarlet by Teresa Wong, which deals with post-partum depression.

Ironically, graphic novels seem to have had better chances in the book prize world the further back we look: Essex County, a graphic novel by Jeff Lemire about a rural community in Southwestern Ontario, made the Canada Reads shortlist in 2011 — making it further in the process than Clyde Fans, Sabrina and Dear Scarlet only to get knocked out on the first day of competition.

Going back even further, the highly-acclaimed Maus by American author and artist Art Speigelman won a Pulitzer in 1992. The book (full title: Maus: A Survivor’s Tale) shows Spiegelman interviewing his father, a Polish Jew, about his memories of surviving the Holocaust during the Second World War.

Even so, Maus didn’t win a Pulitzer for literature, but rather a Pulitzer Special Citation — which basically equates to a Pulitzer given by a jury when they’re not quite sure what category to put it in. Is it literature? Is it art? Is it memoir? Is it history? The answer: it’s a special citation.

Literary evolution remains slow

If these kinds of approaches to recognizing graphic novels seems like gatekeeping what we consider “serious literature,” that’s because it is.

These prizes have been slow to shift away from a European high-culture approach, demonstrating how infuriatingly slowly the western literary canon evolves, especially in any direction away from the exclusionary principles it was and is founded on.

It is, frustratingly, a sluggish and non-linear progression — both in the public perception of what is and is not “literary,” and the ways in which literary institutions such as prizes reflect those perceptions.

This is only underscored by the fact that a graphic novel won’t win the Giller this year, and a graphic novel probably won’t win it next year, either. But eventually, one day, it’ll happen — and if this new trend of graphic novels hitting prize longlists is any indication, it’s a future we’re moving closer to all the time.

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