Die a Graphic Death: Revisiting the Death of Genre with Novels

Die a Graphic Death: Revisiting the Death of Genre with Novels
© Artwork Scott Dewey

In ‘The Death of Genre: Why the Best YA fiction Often Defies Classification’, Scot Smith speaks of having to constantly reclassify and reshuffle texts as he and his students consider the books on the genre lists used in his classes.

Knowing that “Young adult literature has a long tradition of authors whose works defy genre classification”, he mulls over the idea of creating a genre-busters category for “novels which do not easily fit into a single category”.

He concludes his article by stating, “By denouncing genre, we may perhaps begin to expand the horizons of our adolescents”. As someone who travels the country speaking to pre-service teachers, in-service teachers, English professors and Education professors, about graphic novels, I sympathise with Scot as he grapples with the issue of genre, a term which he feels may need to be retired.

What I have found repeatedly is that, regardless of the conscientious scholars and creators who have written on the graphic novel as being a form beyond genre, many students, teachers, and professors continue to refer to sequential art narration (comic strips, comic books, and graphic novels) as a genre rather than, as I think is more accurate, a form or format.

This haunts me. Class after class, event after event, I find myself feeling like the arch-nemesis who thought he had finally conquered an old foe once and for all, only to curse the heavens when the apparently super-powered terminology resurfaces: “Why won’t you just die, already!?!?” I extort. Or, in my more reflective moments, I may quip, “Haven’t I killed you already?” But no; I have not.

This article is an extension of my continued efforts to rid the world of the notion that the graphic novel is best thought of as a genre. Herein, I will offer alternative classifications, stating that we might best see the graphic novel as a form that supports multiple genres; attempt to explain why genre is a reductivist term when it applies to sequential art narratives; and offer visual examples and ready-to-use activities to help illustrate my points.

To be fair, I admit that I was once guilty of the sin of which I write. In my earliest days of researching comics and pedagogy, I too called graphic novels a genre, and I was far from alone. Then I read Scott McCloud’s ‘Understanding Comics’ and Will Eisner’s ‘Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative’, all texts from authors who actually create sequential art and teach it to others.

McCloud refers to comics as an “artform — the medium — known as comics is like a vessel which can hold any number of ideas and images”. He uses form and medium interchangeably.

For McCloud, comics consist of writers, artists, trends, genres, styles, subject matter, and themes. In this vessel, which McCloud visually portrays as a pitcher, it is clear that genre is “subsumed” within the larger form.

This idea of form subsuming genre seems to run counter to how many literary-minded folks consider genre. For instance, in the classic ‘A Reader’s Guide to Literary Terms’, Karl Beckson and Arthur Ganz state that genre is: “A literary type or class. Works are sometimes classified by subject — thus carpe diem poems ( q.v. ) may be said to constitute a genre — but the more usual classification is by form and treatment. Some recognised genres are epic, tragedy, comedy, lyric, etc. From the Renaissance through the eighteenth century, the various genres were governed by sets of rules which a writer was expected to follow. Recently, however, criticism has become less directly prescriptive and less concerned with distinctions among genres, though they are still considered useful.”

Beckson and Ganz appear to define genre and form as synonymous. But, as I look at their examples of recognised genres, I see that the epic is a type of oral narrative poem; tragedy and comedy are types of drama; and the lyric is a type of poem. For each genre listed, there is a larger form to which it belongs.

In the very-recent ‘Genre Theory: Teaching, Writing, and Being’, Deborah Dean illustrates how genre continues to trump form in some intellectual circles. Dean states that “Genres are more than forms,” furthering this claim herewith: “Although, as Anthony Pare and Graham Smart acknowledge, ‘repeated patterns in the structure, rhetorical moves, and style of texts are the most readily observable aspects of genre’, these observable features do not, by themselves, constitute a genre. Aviva Freedman and Peter Medway explain that regularities in form come from the situation, instead of existing without reason: ‘Genres have come to be seen as typical ways of engaging rhetorically with recurring situations. The similarities in textual form and substance are seen as deriving from the similarity in the social action undertaken’ (“Introduction” 2). Bazerman extends the explanation, showing that forms not only come from situations but also guide us through situations: ‘Genres are not just forms. Genres are forms of life […] Genres are the familiar places we can go to create intelligible communicative action with each other and the guideposts we use to explore the unfamiliar’ (“Life 19). And Marilyn L. Chapman affirms the others’ assertions about form’s relation to genre: ‘Rather than rules to be followed […] or models to be imitated […], genres are now being thought of as cultural resources on which writers draw in the process of writing for particular purposes and in specific situations’ (469). So, although form is an aspect of genre, form does not define a genre. (Dean 9)”

Less directly prescriptive, indeed. Each of the experts Dean quotes defines genre liberally, but each also extends the literary-minded ideal of form as part of genre, whereas the visual artists/theorists I have mentioned and I, too, would say, instead, “although genre is an aspect of form, genre does not define a form.” I will expound on this point shortly, but let us consider how the genre versus form dilemma is playing out in recent publications on YA literature: Perhaps it is thinking similar to Beckson and Ganz’s, and Dean’s and her admittedly impressive sources, or maybe it is the “newness” of the form — or the newness of considering the form as viable — that is contributing to the conundrum of exactly what and how to consider graphic novels.

For example, in an early discussion of them in ‘Young Adult Literature: Exploration, Evaluation, and Appreciation’, Katherine Bucher and M. Lee Manning use both genre and format to describe comic books, graphic novels, and magazines. They state, “These formats differ dramatically from the genres that educators have traditionally encouraged adolescents to read” and “For many young adults, these three genres represent a welcome move away from what they consider traditional ‘school’ reading”.

The chapter dealing with comics and graphic novels explicitly in their textbook is entitled ‘Exploring Other Formats’ but refers to graphic novels as a “visual genre” (278). Bucher and Manning break down some popular comic book series under the headings super-heroes, humour, fantasy/science fiction, and manga.

Despite the possible error of considering manga a genre instead of a form, as well, they touch on the fact that they are essentially offering their readers different genres of things that they themselves have described as genres.

This begs the question: If something can be subdivided into parts that are each extremely distinct, can we call that thing a genre? Surely there are subgenres, but if something can be a fantasy story, a romance, historical fiction, nonfiction, journalism, mythology, or a war story using the same format, can we truly call that form a genre? The term “subgenre” suggests to me very fine degrees of separation from overarching themes, not formal elements of display or vast differences in themes and outlooks.

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