Michael Dirda’s Love Letter to Genre Fiction
It was immensely gratifying to read the following sentences by the great literary critic, Michael Dirda, in his Washington Post Book World column yesterday:
Over the past 25 years, literary fiction has increasingly disdained the strict tenets of social realism. Our finest writers are now producing what is essentially science fiction (Cormac McCarthy's The Road), alternate history (Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union) and absurdist fantasy (the short stories of George Saunders). A hot author such as Jonathan Lethem proudly introduces the work of Philip K. Dick for the Library of America. Neil Gaiman, creator of the Sandman series, has achieved rock-star status. We are living in an age when genre fiction -- whether thrillers or graphic novels, children's books or sf -- seems far more exciting and relevant than well-wrought stories of adultery in Connecticut.
As a longtime fan of Dirda's criticism, I was already happily aware of the regard in which he holds the finest examples of the comics artform, but I still get a thrill to see comics --and genre fiction of any sort, no matter the medium-- get their due in the rarefied air of a serious lit-crit journal. To be completely candid, it also irritates me slightly that I feel this way, since it seems to indicate that --even if only subconsciously-- I think that the merits of the medium still need defending in 2007.
And yet, upon reflection, the sad fact is that the medium does still need such defense. I would hazard a guess that even after two solid decades of "Comics Aren't Just for Kids Anymore" articles in mainstream publications, the vast majority of people still think of comics as a genre ... which is to say, they think of comics as pretty much beginning and ending with superheroes. I'd like to think that anyone reading these words is well aware that such is not the case, but then, you are reading a blog that's dedicated to comics after all.
Anyway, I digress. What I'm really wondering is why is it that I (and, if I may be so bold as to project, we) still feel this need for reassurance? I believe it was Harvey Pekar who first said "comics are words and pictures, and there's no limit to how good the words and pictures can be." I first encountered that phrase in a Comics Journal interview with Neil Gaiman (long before he became a million-selling "rock-star" author), and it was as if a light bulb went off. Yes! There it is, a perfectly distilled refutation of the false notion that comics are, by their very nature, kids stuff. The only piece missing from the credo is that there is also no limit to the types of stories that can be told in the comics form.
I know, I know, I'm preaching to the choir here, and that we have seen --and will no doubt continue to see-- signs of improvement, with the general (reading) public starting to come around on comics. I also suspect we've all felt the pride that comes in having opened someone's eyes as to how good comics can be. The trick is finding the way in with a particular reader, while realizing that you may only get one shot. I always start by asking what kind of books they read and/or what kind of movies they watch, and use their answers to guide my comics selection. I really believe that we're living in a new golden age of comics, that the quality of comics writing is higher than it has ever been and that the diversity of the subject matter is such that there really is a comic out there for just about anyone.
Man, I'm all over the place today, huh? Let's see if I can manage to wrap this up in something resembling a cohesive fashion.
I'd like to think that as comics continue to be interwoven into the fabric of mainstream culture --and comics writers (and readers) continue to find themselves in tastemaking positions-- that we're on the verge of a tipping point. I'm also reminded of an anecdote that Brian K. Vaughan shared at this year's NYCC. The author of Y: The Last Man and a writer for LOST talked about his first trip to L.A. five years ago, saying that he went out there and "met with a lot of interns who loved my comics and who said, 'wish we could make a movie out of this, dude.' And now, five years later, there's been a sort of a geek diaspora and all of those interns are now running the studios."
Which brings us back to Michael Dirda, and his observation that genre fiction is not only gaining critical respect, but that some of our very finest writers are writing --and are increasingly winning awards for-- what amounts to genre fiction. The fact that three of the six notable authors Dirda names either have written comics (Chabon and Gaiman), or are currently writing their comics debut (Lethem) has got to bode well for future mainstream critical acceptance of the medium, right? I mean, as unofficial ambassadors for comics go, that's a pretty damn high-powered bunch of literary heavyweights to have on our side.
But wouldn't it be nice to get to a point where we don't need such ambassadors?