Category Archives: Literary Criticism

Gothic Conventions Used in Frankenstein: Volume one

In my English course we specifically must focus on three schools of thought whilst constructing an essay: Marxist, psychoanalysis and feminist readings. I’ve nearly always grasped the concepts of psychoanalyst with novels such as ‘The Kite Runner’, with ‘Death of a Salesman’ I studied Marxist readings and with ‘King Lear’ and ‘The Great Gatsby’ I combined the two elements, only really dabbling my hand in the feminist school of thought. But none the less, this year, it being presumably my last as an English student, I’ve decided to get off my stubborn backside and write this set essay on ‘Frankensteins gothic conventions’ with the view of a feminine light. At first, admittedly I was weary, however, I’ve interlinked the views of feminist critics with other interpretations involving sexuality and fate. Frankenstein is a very interesting novel to search upon if reading into the role of woman in novels. I even found myself enjoying writing this little dissertation, this essay is only brief, there was no formal examination so I spent less time on it as I would normally, but nevertheless I am pleased with roping down from my high horse to ponder upon another view-point. You never know, i might just do some more feminist readings. Enjoy!

Frankenstein is often portrayed and glamourized by critics as the ‘ultimate gothic novel’ however; we must delve into Shelly’s exact use of gothic conventions in order to understand exactly how Shelly utilizes simple gothic motifs to create a world so tantalizing and elusive.

Such use of gothic conventions are used during the creation of the monster, it is through this, that Victor erodes the role of woman in society; he has broken down social barriers and fails to see the implications of the consequences, he flees from the monstrosity he has created and attempts to suppress the blame from himself by citing that the monsters birth was from ‘a workshop of filthy creation’ this quote is a direct allusion to the woman’s womb. Victor is subtly mocking woman’s place in society as beneath a man by branding their internal organs as ‘dirty.’ Victor tries to usurp the role of Woman in the novel;Feminist literary theory would claim that Frankenstein’s act of creation is not only a sin against God and the force of nature. It is also an act against the “female principle”, which includes natural procreation as one of its central aspects and as a result, The Monster then seeks to destroy womankind as a vengeance against woman principles as Victor has deprived woman of their natural function in society.Mary Shelly’s mother was a founder of the feminist movement, a liberal thinker with forceful philosophy who no doubt influenced this rational and predominant theme within the novel. Instantly, this recalls the much broader implications of the human condition and the relationship between man and God. The relationship between Victor and the monster raises many questions as to the meaning of humanity and existence. In his corrupting pursuit for the ‘thirst of knowledge’ Victor Frankenstein is frequently compared to Prometheus, as the novel’s subtitle “The Modern Prometheus” suggests. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods whereas in a bid to create the monster, Victor harnessed the power of electricity and became ‘beheld’ by a ‘most violent and terrible thunderstorm’ it is Frankenstein’s most terrific mistake in presuming that he could displace God, Victor tries not only to find the secret of life but also to remove life’s defects by rebelling against natures natural order and selection. But it is unlike God, that Victor fails to nurture the one thing that he produced. The ‘secret toils’ that he endured suggest that he has been the victim of a shameful ploy. It is by this, that the novel can be viewed as a mock of religion, it is fact his rash, impatient and stubborn desire to create life that the horrible physiognomy of the Monster is a direct result of Frankenstein’s hurry and anxiety caused by his awareness of committing a sin against God. Victor then tries to surpass the blame upon destiny as he describes it as ‘too potent’ Victor’s futile plead is attempting to convince us that destiny is predetermined, and fate is premeditated and that there might be a higher power after all, men are corrupted by the preconditioned aspects of the world, and free will is only a limited scope and far limits Victors scientific desires. It is Victor’s fixated desire only to rid of the ‘distant species’ that he regards as woman who implies he fears also his own sexuality.

As Victor describes the ‘dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils’ it is the pivotal moment of horror as Victor arrives at a climax of his anguished trepidation. Pathetic fallacy is then used to set an appropriate bleak and depressing atmosphere as the ‘dismal rain’ bellows down from above. Victor envisions his mother’s dead corpse. He has an unwillingness to embrace his mother or the face of Elizabeth that he first thought he sought. This could be a deliberate link back to when Victor describes Elizabeth as his ‘more than sister’ and this reveals his fear of incestuous desire, however, by juxtaposing the creating of the monster with this most terrific vision, the void between illusion and reality is opened up as it is blurred in Victors mind, and we can start to trace his descent into madness and deliberate isolation. By creating the monster Victor has destroyed female persona, as previously discussed, however, it is as if he has effectively killed his mother, she is nothing more than a rotting corpse. It is also suggestive that he sees sex as destructive and ‘hideous’. This chapter in volume one involves the three elements of sex, death and the monster. They are thus linked in a single image; this dream episode establishes a clear link between Victor’s avoidance of sexuality. Further regards to sexuality can also be found in the isolation of The Monster–he destroys the female creature horrified upon thinking another could tread upon the earth. The frequent motif of fear of sexuality could also be similarly found in Walton who ‘desires the company of a man whose eyes would reply to mine’ Duality is often a gothic convention and a frequent motif in gothic fiction.

The framed narrative used in Frankenstein is a complex structure; it involves embedded narratives of stories upon stories within stories. The narrative first begins through Walton sending letters to his sister, this approach is commonly known as an epistolary style is a novel in which a character (or characters) tells the story through letters. In Frankenstein, Captain Robert Walton writes letters to his sister. Walton sets the frame and the scene of the novel up, he begins to recount about Victor, the narrative is then given wholly to Victor, presumably to increase our understanding of the character and to increase our paths and awe, before Victors catharsis is then given back to Walton as the novel ends on a denouement. Shelley did not insert the letters by chance; they are purposefully added to provide a deeper dimension to the novel. Walton first allows us to channel a way to suspend our disbelief as with him the novel becomes more plausible as there are now two men seemingly hell-bent on a pursuit, Walton to ‘tread a land never before imprinted by the foot of man’ and Victor to ‘make the secrets of heaven and earth known to me’ It is because of this framed narrative structure that the voices, the stories given to us become blurred as to whom is speaking them and we ask ourselves who exactly is recounting their narrative. A deliberate ploy, perhaps used by Shelly, as traditionally gothic ghost tales are orally given and it was the night previous to writing Frankenstein that her and Lord Byron, along with Percy Shelly told such stories in order to ‘make the blood curdle and quicken the beatings of the heart’ The narrative also involves the role of a listener and each narrative allows the reader to carefully consider the narrative of before and draw upon certain aspects of each one before they are drawn and tied together in a single continuum. We can also consider the reliability of the narrator as a whole, their interpretations, specifically Victors, serves for us to look for parallels and echoes within the plot. Therefore, it is important to behold an open mind whilst reading Frankenstein, otherwise self-absorbance is imminent. Its intention as a cautionary tale is applied as Walton, upon hearing Victor’s narrative on the destructiveness of knowledge and power, turns away from his perilous mission to the North Pole and we see Shelly’s gothic conventions all lay out. Victors attempt to eliminate God and the woman race, carried with it implications that he could not fathom, he rebelled against the laws of nature and is therefore condemned, he is, like Prometheus punished for dabbling in the arts of something far beyond what he academic achievements could possibly behold.

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On Children’s Literature and Censorship – A Brief Look at Art, Literary Theory & Scary Stories

If you have not yet heard, there has been a lot of buzz going around the internet in regards to HarperCollins’ decision to re-release a 30th anniversary edition of the classic children’s book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. The reason it’s been getting so much publicity? They’ve replaced all of Stephen Gammell’s original art with new art by Brett Helquist. For most children, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark played a huge part in their formative reading years. And while the stories hold a special place in our hearts–it’s the haunting imagery that will forever lurk in the recesses of our brains.

Sure, I could go on about how this is an outrage and how it’s all kinds of wrong to mess with a modern-day classic–but that’s been done to death. And while the above statements are all true, I believe there’s a more larger issue at hand that isn’t being addressed as much: the issue of how literature and art can be censored/manipulated based on its position within the greater realm of literary theory. But let me not get too ahead of myself, instead, let’s examine the case from the beginning.

This story is not new (in fact, the 30th anniversary editions were released close to two years ago) it does not change the fact that people are still visibly upset by this change–it also doesn’t help that the original editions of the book series are nearly impossible to find, as the new ones have more or less completely replaced the original books. For those who may not have grown up with the Scary Stories series, here’s some background info: Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was first published by HarperCollins in 1981, written by former journalist/reporter Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by artist Stephen Gammell. The stories were your typical scary story fare, folklore and urban legends written masterfully to both scare and delight the children and young adults reading them. But what was most often remembered was the artwork itself, which was very dark and unsettling, especially for a young audience, but, as with most children, always left you wanting more. A review from an Amazon customer describes it best:

To this day, the truly special part of Schwartz’s “Scary Stories” series has not been the tales, but the wonderful, horrifying illustrations by Gammell. Schwartz’s collection, while he put obvious effort into retelling these stories for a children’s audience, cannot by themselves evoke a feeling of dread or horror. If anything, they are comic horror, often ending in a punchline. If anything, the stories are a good introduction for black humor for children. But this is not what makes a classic. This means that the reason this book has survived and been wildly popular for so many years is probably not its stories, but something else. As many reviews have pointed out, that something is those Gammell illustrations. The rotting corpses. The shambling undead. Even the smiling, friendly “viper,” who is actually pretty benign in the story, but has something… sinister nonetheless. Gammell’s illustrations are so horrifying, that when I read this as a child, I could not help but imagine them… animated and moving around. In my nightmares. The best nightmares that make you love that feeling of being scared.

I won’t discredit the work Alvin Schwartz put into his stories, but they are, at best, an excellent retelling and rendering of folklore. In his 1988 interview with Schwartz, “Night Visions: Conversations with Alvin Schwartz and Judith Gorog,” Leonard S. Marcus describes scary stories as a mix of “supernatural and surrealist fantasy, black humor, and the cautionary tale” then goes on to demonstrate Schwartz’s mastery in the genre: “A former reporter, Schwartz brings his to his work a journalist’s respect for clear, crisp prose and solid background research, and a keen sense of his audience” (44). And that’s exactly what  Schwartz envisioned while writing these books, bringing folklore to a new audience, as Schwartz states:

In all of my books what I’m doing basically is presenting adult material in a way that children can understand. Children are so sophisticated these days that it works for them . . . [sophisticated] in terms of their life experiences or maybe simply their life experiences through the media. What fascinates me is that with the scary material, you’d think they would be jaded. But they’re not. They’re refreshed.  (Marcus, 50).

Schwartz wrote these stories to an audience he knew would not only be able to handle the material, but would enjoy and seek it out as well. And this was proven to be true since, as Marcus states, “a number of children’s librarians and booksellers all said that the genre for which they get the most request is ‘scary stories.'” (46). But, again, as previously stated, it is not the text that most remember, but the art. The art that wonderfully accompanied the text to create just the right balance of humor and horror for a fully well-rounded piece of fiction. As stated in the Schwartz interview:

LM: Sometimes I suppose and illustration can be helpful in bringing forward a suggestion that you don’t want to be too explicit about in the text.

AS: One could illustrate that story by simply having the girl look back and not showing what she sees. Stephen Gammell has made a very important contribution to these books because he has such a wild imagination. (51)

The notion of text and art working together is one I’ve touched upon before, in my post “Comic Books: A Viable Form of Literature?“, especially in regards to teaching literature:

By examining the combination of images + words, students are not only learning how to analyze a piece of literature, but also an introductory course on how to examine art. Does a mix of the two make a piece of literature automatically disposable? I’d beg to differ. Would Sterne’s pages of doodles in Tristram Shandy, Vonnegut’s frequent drawings in Breakfast of Champions, and even Joyce’s dazzling way of creating an art from the placement of words on the page in Ulysses make the texts themselves worthless? Hardly. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe this indicates that introducing images and art into a piece of literature doesn’t have to demean the work or make it “childish,” but instead enrich and add even more layers of meaning to the text itself. The two forms of art do not always need to be mutually exclusive.

Schwartz and Gammell worked together to combine the two forms of art to bring folklore to a new generation, as well as introduce a new form of art to children, one that would forever leave a lasting imprint on their lives. And while it did impact many–and while children had most sought out and requested scary stories from libraries–Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark found itself on the ALA’s list of most frequently challenged books for two straight decades, often protested by parents groups who deemed the material “inappropriate.” Despite this, HarperCollins stood by their decision to publish the book, and did not waiver by pulling it or censoring it.

So why now, 30 years later, have they decided to completely change the artwork?

Unfortunately, I have unsuccessfully been able to locate any comments whatsoever from HarperCollins regarding their decision (oddly enough, they seem to have never made any statements about it, and it seems as though it took so long for the masses to catch on because they discreetly re-released the books with the new artwork, so it was only after a few people made a stink about it on Amazon that people began to really get upset) so I can’t go on record to explain their choice. However, a Facebook group called “Bring back the original illustrations to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” speculates that  “changes made by Harper Collins were designed to accommodate the delicate sensibilities of the books’ would-be censors.” But again the question still must be raised: why now? Why are these images more offensive now than they were in 1981? And more importantly, why is it OK to go under the radar and completely change what made it a classic, without having to release any form of statement on the matter?

The only reason I can think of, is that it just seems that  censorship is just the “in” thing nowadays. In a world where laws like SOPA/PIPA/ACTA are still scheming to scrape by, using underhanded means to censor things is just commonplace. And in this specific case, censorship is even easier because, to put it simply, children/young adult literature just does not matter to the literary canon and literary theorists. In the wonderfully insightful article “Literary Theory and Young Adult Literature: The Open Frontier in Critical Studies” Cindy Lou Daniels states:

Some still believe that YA literature is merely a secondary category of childlike storytelling–didactic in nature–and unworthy of serious literary evaluation, when, in fact, it is really an overlooked and unappreciated literary genre that has only recently begun to attract the critical attention that it deserves. (78).

While Scary Stories may be considered children’s literature, and not YA literature, the basic principal is still in place: literary theorists are unwavering in what their views of literature are and are not. And often landing on the “not” list include YA literature, children’s literature, scary stories, illustrated books, comic books, graphic novels and the like. Daniels then makes a bold claim:

What would help in this regard would be not only for critics to recognize the difference between genres, but to simply acknowledge that regardless of genre, both children’s and YA works are literature. (78)

A bold claim indeed, for an article published in 2006. What’s more interesting is the note attached to this claim, which directs the reader to an article titled “The Limits of Literary Criticism of Children’s and Young Adult Literature” by Hans-Heino Ewers, which explore the issue of whether or not children’s literature should be regarded as art. In it, he references Henrich Wolgast’s essay “The Misery of Our Children’s Literature,”  a classic German article that called for the valuing of children’s literature and the necessity of considering it art, which was originally published in–get this–1896.  116 years later and we STILL can’t come to terms with the notion of accepting children’s literature in literary theory.  As it appears, the restraints of literary criticism are not just dated by about 60-70 years, but instead over 100. Is there any wonder why I’ve called for a complete reboot of literary criticism as we know it?

In Literature for Children, David L. Russell states, “Literary criticism is the discussion of literature undertaken in order to interpret its meaning and to evaluate its quality” (48) and it is also true that “the purpose of criticism is to promote high standard in literature and to encourage a general appreciation of literature among readers” (48).  One would assume that the “general appreciation” would also include allowing readers, children, young adults, adults, to choose the works in which they want to read, criticize and appreciate (to essentially set their own “high standards”; especially forming these views and opinions at a young learning age. A good way to do just that is to, as most schools do, focus a large part of lesson plans on teaching and approaching banned and challenged books (especially children’s and YA books). The lesson plan “A Guide to Challenged and Banned Books” features the article “A Few Words About Censorship” by YA author Chris Crutcher. In it, he gives the scenario of, after stating to children that no books should be censored, if he thinks that material is “appropriate for my little brother to read?” Crutcher responds:

You didn’t ask me what was appropriate, you asked which books should be censored. I don’t think that stuff is appropriate for your little brother or you or, for that matter, me. But you live in a free country, and that means standing up for that freedom, not just for the things you agree with or believe in. If you live in a democracy, and you want to participate in that democracy, you have to learn to stand up for the expression of things you hate. It’s easy to promote material that represents what you believes–a littler harder to do that for material that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. (5)

Just as it’s hard for literary theorists to get behind or criticize anything that’s out of their scope of appreciation. Just as the families that may have had the hair on the back of their necks stand up after seeing Gammell’s art, but still sought to deny anyone else from seeing it.  Crutcher presents an excellent method and view to teach to children at a young age. The guide also explains The Freedom to Read. In 1953, the ALA and the American Book Publishers Council issued a joint statement which affirmed the responsibilities of librarians and publishers to make the widest diversity of views and expressions available. It also states that:

It is the responsibility of publishers and librarians, as guardians of the people’s freedom to read, to contest encroachments upon that freedom by individuals or groups seeking to impose their own standards or tastes upon the community at large; and by the government whenever it seeks to reduce or deny public access to public information. (5)

This is all fine and well, but, there’s just one, small thing that I can’t get past . . .

This lesson plan and “guide” was published by HarperCollins and can be downloaded on their website.

Perhaps HarperCollins is firmly behind the idea of not censoring text, but treating art on a different, lower-level that can be manipulated and changed and yes, censored. Perhaps they, like many literary theorists, don’t regard illustrated children’s books on the same level as other forms of literature. Either way, changing the art–assuming it was in response to 30-year old protests from parents and not the children who loved the books–is in direct violation of everything they stand for and impose on others in their guide. Though, then again, that’s not very different from how often literary theorists impose rules upon others that are in direct opposition of their own; it seems as though both literary criticism and the publishing industry are in need of a shake up. Maybe we can write up a guide on that get Stephen Gammell to illustrate it!

NB: If you feel so inclined, here is a petition to bring back the original artwork. While this is in no way meant to disregard the wonderful art created by Brett Helquist–and I absolutely suggest you check out his website for a more comprehensive look at all of his talented work–it’s the notion of letting HarperCollins Publishers know that censorship and manipulation without any sort of warning will not be tolerated.

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Comic Books: A Viable Form of Literature?

I’ve been tossing the ideas for this post around in my head for some time. I’ve done my research, know my opinions, have my own connections to it, but I’ve just had difficulty getting this whole argument started. But now, amidst the whirlwind of disputes going on both about and within the comics community, I think it’s high time for me to get off my proverbial writing ass and get this started.

I should note, first and foremost, that some of my motives for writing this are selfish. I work in the comic book industry and I absolutely love it. I also have a BA in Literature. I love to read, write and analyze literature (in case you haven’t noticed – I run a literature blog). I also work in comic books. I by no means think that it’s a “waste” of my “talents,” nor do I believe that comic books are a thorn in the side of literature. It’s as if my degree should be revoked for working with and – God forbid – garnering entertainment from comic books. I don’t appreciate dirty looks from literary “elite” when I tell them what I do for a living.  And – yes – I DO believe that comic books are a viable form of literature. But even if I didn’t work in the industry, I’d still feel that way.

Self-righteous rant aside, the problem I’m addressing is the latter. The issue of whether or not comics can and should be considered literature. Which, of course, brings me to my first order of business: What is literature?

It’s an age old question that often goes unanswered, for fear that whatever might be said could (and most often WILL) be wrong. As mere readers, who are we to say what literature is and is not? Which leads us to the bigger issue at hand: WHO decides what literature is? There appears to be an untouchable canon that can make these decisions and they can only be shared with a select few. Literary eugenics at its finest.

But it’s easy to pass this off as an “us vs. them” issue,  and leave it at that. It’s easy to say “oh the literature ‘canon’ believes that comics aren’t literature,  because they’re the old, antiquated, grandpa-like big bad guys and we have to fight them to get any sort of recognition.” That’s a throwaway argument. The truth of the matter is, it’s dissent within the comics industry that presents a barrier to any sort of claim that comics are, in their purest form, literature.

One cannot discuss comics as literature without ample mentions of "Maus."

 

Take, for example, a piece by Barb Lien-Cooper of “The Park & Barb Show” from comicsbulletin.com entitled “Are Comic Books Literature?” In this article, Cooper states that even posing the question of whether or not comics should be taken seriously by the mainstream is a futile effort. She goes on to say that those who attempt to only “use the best and brightest examples of comic book writing in order to make what they’re reading more legitimate…we’ve all known fanboys who have written a term paper concerning comics as literature. They site Maus, Watchmen, Sandman, and so forth as examples of the heights the medium can rise to, as the works that make the comic book readers at least as smart as those who read  Shakespeare. Then, after writing the paper, they go back to reading Top Cow comics and Spawn.” After reading this statement, I can’t help but ask a number of questions:  1.) Does what people choose to read for entertainment purposes mean they can’t make a rational arguments bout other “higher” forms of literature? 2.) Is it fair to assume that all readers who want to argue the validity of comics in lit are “fanboys” and therefore just disregard their arguments? 3.) Does every comic in existence need to be on par with “Shakespeare” for it to be considered literature?

I find this article and statement problematic for many reasons. First I’ll address the first question at hand. Say I’m a film major, en route to becoming a film critic or at least a connoisseur. I’ve studied all the classics and consider them some of my favorites. I’ve done all the necessary work and I’ve even been lauded by others in my field. But after all of my hard work is done, I like to kick back with a beer and enjoy an American Pie film, just for laughs. Does that make every point and judgment I’ve made about film moot? Does that mean I can no longer cohort with other film lovers?  How about if I ‘m a Literature major, maybe even on my way to becoming a professor, and I’ve studied and enjoyed all the classics? I’ve done mounds of research on fellows like Joyce, Faulkner and the ever-revered Shakespeare. I’m knowledgeable in the subject and a fan at the same time. But, when I have free time or when I’m at the beach, I take in a tawdry romance novel or two. What does this say about me? Is everything I’ve ever researched and discussed wrong? And just what if in my free time I choose to pick up a comic book, or a graphic novel? Should my degree be revoked? This same scenario can be applied strictly to comics. What if someone gets some grand ideas from some of the always-referenced, poignant graphic novels but at the same time enjoys a superhero comic? Does that mean that all of the above pieces of work are at the same level, and all the readers must just be fanboys? It doesn’t seem to make much sense.  And on that note, why is it that a appreciator of comic books must be considered a “fanboy”? Sexist connotations aside, there is undoubtedly a negative connection with the word “fanboy.” It takes one out of the comfort zone of being interested in all aspects of comics, and places the reader in the manic zone of being a fanatic, blinded by their devotion to the comics world, and therefore unable to form a logical, rational or well-thought out argument about comics rightful place in the literary “canon.”

What disappoints me most about this article is the assumptions and hasty generalizations made about both comic fans and literary critics alike. Cooper goes on to give some “helpful” guidelines for comic fans to take into consideration:

In other words, don’t play around with high culture/low culture distinctions if you aren’t into high culture in the first place. It makes one’s arguments look spurious and it makes the comics industry look ridiculous. The mainstream aren’t going to believe the arguments and will most likely look down on those making them…Fans DO have to stop apologizing to the world for liking comics. We do have to show the mainstream that we aren’t losers, freaks, misfits, or total outsiders. However, snob appeal arguments help no one. The part of the mainstream which actually reads literature isn’t going to believe that comics are literature, no matter what the arguments are or who makes them. The part of the mainstream that doesn’t read literature just see those comics fans who make literature arguments as being geeks, dweebs, and eggheads. Instead, maybe we should start aiming our arguments to those who will actually listen to us. For instance, instead of saying that comics can be literature, why not say instead that they are cleverly formed units of popular entertainment with something for everyone? By aiming a tad lower, we might be able to get in the crowd that doesn’t read Jane Eyre but does read Angela’s Ashes or The Green Mile.

Again, there’s an immediate conclusion that comic book fans and literature fans are from two entirely different worlds, unable to ever meet in the middle, see eye-to-eye, or *gasp* actually be one. All literature fans consider comic fans nerds. All literature fans are, in turn, snobs. Seems pretty juvenile to me. While I do agree the comic fans need not apologize, and that there’s nothing wrong with making the argument that comics provide something for everyone, why must aim one “lower” to get recognition? (Citing Jane Eyreas an example, the aim must be lower than a high-school

"Crime and Punishment" by David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos.

reading capacity, and geared toward the books-made-into-movies popular mainstream).

But what about those graphic novels and comic series that are well-thought out, richly written and illustrated and have a poignant message? Why should they, to put this dated article into today’s perspective, only ever be compared to books like the Twilight franchise? Why should they only be accepted into the typical mainstream but not into the “canon”? What about those graphic novelized versions of classic pieces of literature like David Zane Mairowitz and Alain Korkos’ comic version of Crime and Punishment, or R. Crumb’s take on The Book of Genesis? Where do they lie?  The argument becomes more and more muddled as more and more pieces of “canon”-esque comics are published.

Cooper concludes her tirade by stating that “there’s about as much crap and as much good stuff in it as in any other entertainment medium. Comics can be clever, well-written, involving popular entertainment, but they’re pop entertainment nonetheless. That’s as should be. Comics aren’t meant to be literature, appealing only to those with cobwebs in their brains. Comics are meant to be enjoyed by all.”  Again, crude stereotyping of literature fans. Is this not snobbery on her part, to say that comics are for everyone – so long as they’re not read by literature fans with “cobwebs in their brains”? Comics, for Cooper, are meant to be disposable. Not revered, just simply mainstream trash that can be easily forgotten. Doesn’t make working in comics seem like a worthwhile choice, now does it?

However, the idea of comics as disposable is not an idea only presented by Cooper. John Goodrich has devoted an entire article to it, called “Comic Books: Disposable Literature?” In this piece, he states that comics can not be well-written because the writers are on such a time crunch to get them out weekly or monthly, that the work suffers. He also states that comics “are essentially meant to be experienced once. They are read, and the surprise is gone, and few of the plots and story lines are worth going back and rereading. Like TV episodes…The show may have been good the first time around, but a second? We know what’s going to happen. Often there’s nothing else to see in an episode after the first time. There are of course exceptions: X-Files and The Simpsons episodes stand up very well to being taped and re-watched, but these are definitely exceptions. Comics are much the same.” So, if there are exceptions to the rule, then how can we just easily throw the argument of comics as being anything but disposable away? On top of the fact that the whole argument is very subjective. Some people can re-watch television shows a multitude of times and catch something new and different each time. So can be said for comic books. What makes classic literature re-readable? The different levels of writing and metaphors and imagery create a new experience every time it’s read – why can’t that be the same for comics and graphic novels? Could there not be subtleties within the art itself that goes unnoticed by the reader’s eye the first time it is taken in? Can not the words and images paint a different picture sand story every time it’s read? Perhaps not, if we only treat the work as disposable. Again, that lies solely in the hands of the reader.

Goodrich then goes into a little history of the evolution of comics, focusing on the Penny Dreadful comics of the 1800s:

While literary titans like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens were writing their masterpieces that would last out two centuries, people like James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Pecket Priest were writing Penny Dreadfuls…They frequently had bloody, vicious plots, designed to keep people coming back for more week after week…Like the dozens of lost Greek plays, we don’t have these texts. Nobody thought that these penny dreadfuls were worth keeping, despite the fact that hundreds and thousands of people bought and read them. One of the most successful of the penny dreadfuls, Varney the Vampire, was eventually reprinted as a whole three times, once in 1840, and then again in 1847. Neither of these editions has produced many remaining copies—and certainly none that were available in America until Dover Books eventually reprinted it in 1976. Even that edition is hard to find, because it is not considered serious literature. And having struggled through some 118 pages of Varney, its not difficult to see why. The writing is average, even somewhat readable, but the action is incredibly drawn out, and the plot amazingly slow. Nothing happens quickly. Varney was challenged to a duel on page 84, and the damn thing still hasnt come about, thirty pages of tiny print later. This is because the author was working on several penny dreadfuls at this time (sound familiar?), and had an estimated published output of approximately 70,000 words a month. Handwritten. If youre pouring out that many words, you certainly aren’t choosing them with care. But he made those weekly deadlines, by God!

The cover image from one of the original "Varney the Vampire" publications.The cover image from one of the original “Varney the Vampire” publications.

When Goodrich begins this statement, he name drops the two authors creating “serious literature” at the time: Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens. The biggest difference between them (namely Dickens) and the comic writers were the amount of time and devotion given to their work. Hm. Interesting. Many of people have often cited the myth that Dickens wrote long pieces because he was paid by the word. This is not true. However, he was paid by installment. From the online Dickens Project:

Dickens published his novels in serial form. That is to say, the novels appeared serially, or over a period of many weeks or months (much as a modern-day soap opera appears daily, or a modern sit-com appears weekly). Most of the novels, including Nicholas Nickleby, Dombey and Son, David Copperfield, Bleak House, Little Dorrit, and Our Mutual Friend, appeared in monthly parts following a very specific formula developed by Dickens and his publishers with the release of Dickens’s first full-length novel The Pickwick Papers (1836 – 37). The Pickwick Papers appeared in 20 parts over a period of 19 months. (The last part was a “double issue” that included parts 19 and 20). Each part contained 32 pages of letter press, 2 illustrations, various advertisements, and came wrapped in a flimsy green-paper front and back cover. The price for each part was one shilling (except for the last “double issue,” which was two). This price was very cheap compared to the standard price of a book, which at the time was 31 shillings 6 pence.

Dickens’s 20-part formula was successful for a number or reasons: each monthly number created a demand for the next since the public, often enamored of Dickens’s latest inventions, eagerly awaited the publication of a new part; the publishers, who earned profits from the sale of numbers each month, could partially recover their expenses for one issue before publishing the next; and the author himself, who received payment each time he produced 32 pages of text (and not necessarily a certain number of words), did not have to wait until the book was completed to receive payment. It was largely on the strength of his generous monthly stipend for The Pickwick Papers that Dickens was able to marry Catherine Hogarth in 1836.

So the authors of the penny dreadfuls were creating their works in serial form, maybe in more rapid succession, but the method was not far off from Dickens’. The main difference being that Charles Dickens garnered much larger of a profit from his work. They were created, however, for soap-opera like entertainment. So, is it number of words alone that make his works timeless and the comic authors’ works disposable? Or was it merely because they strayed so far from the mainstream at the time? And once again, who was in charge of deciding whose work was serious and whose was not? Seems to be a monetary issue as opposed to an actual analysis of the work at hand.

Goodrich also goes on to argue that the writing is not the only reason as to why comics are disposable:

Look at the physical makeup of a comic book. Thirty pages of fairly flimsy newsprint, delivered in a form that can’t even stand by itself. Comics stack well, but they aren’t easy to store. While the bookshelf is a generalized piece of equipment that can hold just about anything, the comic book collector needs all sorts of paraphernalia; boxes, bags, and backing boards. Comics are simply not that convenient to keep.This is probably why Dark Horse and Vertigo are putting out so many bound graphic novels. A graphic novel is something that can stand up to repeated readings physically, and the reader can just stick it on their easily-accessible bookshelf when they’re done. It is wide enough to be identifiable from the edge, so it feels like it belongs on a bookshelf. You can put your Elektra Assassin graphic right next to The Grapes of Wrath, Executioner’s Song, or even your Shakespeare collection. A graphic novel belongs on a bookshelf, not locked away in some lightless box. Graphic novels are a step forward in the legitimizing of the comic book industry.

Oh, yes, that’s right. We can measure a novel’s worth based on it’s outward appearance! This is probably the most literal example of judging a book by its cover. This article is a bit dated, so I can allow for some excuses, but over recent years few comic books still have newspaper print, often opting for a higher-quality, glossy, magazine-like paper instead. Likewise, buying bags, boxes and cardboard backing really isn’t all that much of a hassle. Goodrich also legitimizes graphic novels as being worthy enough to stand next to Shakespeare – purely based on size alone. I can only wonder what this means for all smaller books. Is Common Sense by Thomas Pane disposable, since it is essentially a pamphlet rather than a larger-width book? An argument based on facade seems invalid on all ends.

So far, it seems as if comic books cannot be literature because literature, based on above claims,  needs to be wordy, lengthy, in book form (and preferably a larger-width book), endlessly re-readable, and read by people who understand literature and very little else. If this is how comic book enthusiasts, or at very least fans, view literature (and by extent, comic books) then how do those in the literature business view the matter? In his essay “How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature: One Teacher’s Perspective,” English professor and writer Rocco Versaci explains that in the classroom, he often poses the question “what is literature?”  and gets responses such as “literature is difficult, literature is boring, literature is something that people have decided was ‘good’ or ‘important” (61).  Versaci then goes on to explain why these responses are problematic:

The responses interest me because it reveals my students’ awareness of a “canon” (however problematic that word has become) and the sense that certain works are more worthy of serious attention than others; at the same time, the way they express this definitions troubles me because it indicates their sense of removal from the processes of evaluation that help establish this canon. In their view, decisions about “literary quality” — whatever that term might mean — are made by others, the “they from which so many important decrees flow. [61]

When literature is regarded as something so weighty and far beyond mere readers’ grasp, it creates a distance between a piece of literature and its potential readers/fans.  Perhaps the closeness between comics and their fans is one of the reasons many in the comic industry don’t want them to be regarded as literature, for fear of becoming less accessible to those who have been devoted to them for so long. This, however, does not have to be so – in regards to both comic books and literature. Dr. Rocco Versaci believes that it lies in the hands of educators to bridge this gap:

As teachers of literature, we should not strive to get students to accept without question our own judgments of what constitutes literary merit, for such acceptance inevitably places students in the position of seeing literature as a “medicine” that will somehow make them better people, if only they learn to appreciate it. When students view literature in this light, they resent it, and literary works remain a mystery they cannot solve. What is more, this goal of simply passing our own judgments along to our students often impedes what should be our primary goal: to encourage students to see themselves as having a voice in the question of what constitutes literary merit by defining reasonable parameters by which to judge a creative work and articulating why and how that work is — or is not — within those parameters. Only by helping students to achieve this voice do we help them become active, critical, and engaged readers. [61-62]

As readers, it is up to us to decide what criterion should be set in order to define what literature “is,” and that can and should vary from person to person. In order to fully enjoy literature, it lies on our hands to determine what it is by our own standards so that it can be enjoyed to its fullest extent. If this method is taught from an early point, so many students will not only have a broader scope in terms of lit, but will be more willing and genuinely want to read more. When students are able to see that literature can actually be enjoyable, they’ll be more eager to study it as well. With this, introducing comic books into literature courses both early in a student’s educational career and even in college classes [which is already taking place in many schools all over the country] is a great way to bridge that gap between potential reader and literature. Dr. Versaci has both tried and proven this method to be successful:

Many of my students were already familiar with most of these media, though not familiar enough to protect them from surprise. Case in point were the comics. Shortly after we began to discuss John Callahan’s “I think I Was an Alcoholic Waiting to Happen,” it became clear that my students were unaware that comics could and did address mature subject matter…My students were initially surprised by the tone and focus of the story, one student going so far as to say “This isn’t a comic.” … Adolescents and teenagers today are surrounded by diverse and increasingly complex media, and some will often find classroom materials to be dull, irrelevant, or both. But by placing a comic book – the basic form of which they no doubt recognize – into the context of a classroom, teachers can catch students off guard in a positive way, and this disorientation has, in my experience, led students to be come more engaged by a given work.  [62]

With mixed media becoming a gradual and educational norm, it only seems appropriate and necessary that comic books become a regular part of a teaching curriculum. But is this to say that comics are only necessary to make interested because it’s relevant in pop culture? What can students really gather about literature from reading comics? Versaci explains that students can develop analytical and critical thinking skills by studying comics. He states that “in addition to making use of standard literary devices such as point of view, narrative, characterization, conflict, setting, tone, and theme, they also operate with a very complex poetics that blends the visual and textual…by combining words and pictures, comic books force students, rather directly, to reconcile these two means of expression” [64].

Can you guess what this is?

By examining the combination of images + words, students are not only learning how to analyze a piece of literature, but also an introductory course on how to examine art. Does a mix of the two make a piece of literature automatically disposable? I’d beg to differ. Would Sterne’s pages of doodles in Tristram Shandy, Vonnegut’s frequent drawings in Breakfast of Champions, and even Joyce’s dazzling way of creating an art from the placement of words on the page in Ulyssesmake the texts themselves worthless? Hardly. Perhaps it’s a stretch, but I believe this indicates that introducing images and art into a piece of literature doesn’t have to demean the work or make it “childish,” but instead enrich and add even more layers of meaning to the text itself. The two forms of art do not always need to be mutually exclusive.

With the advent of beautifully illustrated and fantastically written novels like Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home cracking Time magazine book lists and winning literature awards, and the list of mature, richly-written graphic novels growing day by day, it almost seems ridiculous and even impossible to still turn our noses up at comic books and graphic novels. But, do comics need to be in novel form and blatantly about mature themes/geared toward an adult audience for them to be considered “literature”? What about the superhero and humor comics we read in our spare time – you know, those ones that all those freaks and geeks return to after hootin’ and hollerin’ about comics’ literary merit? Do those all necessarily need to be considered “disposable”? Is it not possible for us to look back on superhero comics from the past as a way of peeking into what life was once like, maybe even how certain villains portrayed stereotypes of what were considered the “enemies” of the time, and how we chose to represent both them and ourselves?  Perhaps akin to reading Huckleberry Finn, despite the current stigma against it, even if it allows us to analyze more clearly from a completely new and developed point of view that differs from the ones at the time, and a clearer understanding of both the author’s representation and satire of the views of the time – which are made especially evident in the editions containing the illustrations by Edward Windsor Kemble and John Harley. I realize that even daring to make this comparison makes me an enemy in the eyes of comics and literature fans alike, not to mention automatically placing me as a fanboy [even despite my gender]. Not to mention, we often look to political satire cartoons of the past as a way of understanding the history of politics – can’t this be done with all humor cartoons of the past, often displaying the issues at hand at the time they were written?

And what about current comics? Should only older comics be looked at as literature because we can judge them from a new viewpoint? (An issue, I’m sure, arises with all forms of literature). How can we take this approach with current comics? First, one must realize that there are more to comic books than just superhero comics, and it is worth looking into independent comic creators, companies and yes, even web-comics that are fabulously written and illustrated, highly worthy of analysis as well as entertainment.

But comics as lit do not have to be restricted to independent comics. For example, take a look at the fantastic, on-going Life With Archie series from Archie Comics, catching the readership of adolescents and adults alike. While very akin to a soap opera, the action of the series often plays out more like a Russian, Chekhovian drama. Each new issue begs the reader to re-read all previous issues in order to analyze the way the dialogue is said, facial expressions are represented and tone to draw lines between in order to understand how the events have played out, especially with the constant use of foreshadowing. Critical and analytical thinking is often employed, even if it’s an unconscious act. This too can even be used for superhero comics from the greats like DC and Marvel. Likewise, comics geared towards children can be an effective tool for teaching children how to read, by allowing them to both see and understand what the text is telling them.

So, are comics a viable form of literature? Yes. To me, at least. Because in the end, it should be up to me, as a reader, to decide what literature “is,” and “is not.”  Fellow readers and educators alike should encourage everyone to determine the parameters by which their views of literature are defined. Once this is established, analytical thinking is in place, and it becomes more of an enjoyable experience and less of a chore to read, and even study, literature.

And yes, literature should be enjoyed.

Sources:

Goodrich, John. “Comic Books: Disposable Literature?” Qusoor.com, the Home Page of John Goodrich. Elder Gods Rave #12. Gothik APA., Aug. 1998. Web. 31 July 2011..
Lien-Cooper, Barb. “Park Cooper and Barb Lien-Cooper: The Park & Barb Show – Are Comic Books Literature?” Comics Bulletin. Comicsbulletin.com, 21 July 2000. Web. 31 July 2011. <http://www.comicsbulletin.com/pb/9642245292880.htm&gt;.
Versaci, Rocco. “How Comic Books Can Change the Way Our Students See Literature: One Teacher’s Perspective.” The English Journal 91.2 (2001): 61-67. Alechosterman.com. Nov. 2001. Web. 31 July 2011..
“Was Dickens Really Paid by the Word?” The Dickens Project. University of California. Web. 31 July 2011. http://dickens.ucsc.edu/faq/bytheword.html.

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Universal (British) view on gay literature

As a kick off to my contribution to this particular blog I will start by dispensing my view on a subject widely condemned in literature, one which has come under a lot of negative criticism in the past and still does so even within the 21st century. The subject is the use and publication of Gay literature. In my own personal experience I’ve trifled with books written by gay authors, scholars and teachers alike and I find the subject extremely tentative, perplexing, raw, ingenuous and veracious. However many and I use this next term loosely: corporate bastards decide to use the author’s sexuality to define their writing, the overall meaning and moral of their tale.

I was reading an article in a magazine about a new show starting soon, the show was like many, based around a best-selling book. the editors of the magazine decided to put in the added mention of the author of this particular book being a lesbian. I don’t know why I felt so vigorously ‘pissed’ at this added mention of the author’s sexuality something within me struck a chord. It was as if by mentioning the author’s sexuality readers would promptly presume that the show was now going to be more riveting, intriguing. The topic of gay literature has been condemned throughout its years and only really began to headline its way forward due to Stonewall in 1969. However, even today as I was surfing the internet for books to buy I could search for books under the tag: Gay and Lesbian. Why do people, critics, authors and men alike feel the need to categorize books due to their sexuality, surely they’re just books? The book in question with the tv show was ‘The Night Watch’ by Sarah Waters, I must admit I am unfamiliar with the text and therefore I resolved to googling the work in question. Sarah Waters herself has described “I’m writing with a clear lesbian agenda in the novels. It’s right there at the heart of the books.” She calls it “incidental”, because of her own sexual orientation. “That’s how it is in my life, and that’s how it is, really, for most lesbian and gay people, isn’t it? It’s sort of just there in your life.” Okay, so that’s one author that doesn’t mind being stereotyped. Except it does leave me to question whether receiving wide attention and praise for her antics as a ‘lesbian author’ have led her to continue down this road instead of breaching out onto something else. I don’t intend to read Sarah Waters, I mustn’t doubt her for going down the route she has, as an author you dow hat you feel best, I just believe we shouldn’t class authors by their sexuality or even find the need to mention it for factors such as recognition, principle and with regards for tv: Viewers. Some companies use the sexuality of the author of the topic of the book as a way to make more money, gain wider critically acclaimed media attention, that’s not how the literary world should be, but it seems it is and the divide between ‘non gay art’ to ‘gay art’ is even more clear in the 21st Century then it ever has been before, and probably ever will.

Sources: Wikipedia

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The NEW New Criticism Manifesto

It’s time to move on from the antiquated rituals of criticism of the past. Does this statement itself seem outdated? Does even trying to argue against the now old New Criticism just seem hackneyed and unnecessary? Maybe, if so many professors and critics still didn’t feel jailed behind the bars of New Criticism. And for each restriction placed upon their own research, so too do they place it upon their students, readers, etc. This has got to end, one open forum for free literary thinking at a time. This is a call to arms for all literary readers and critics alike, it is time for something truly new.

I cannot completely discredit New Criticism, for it has shaped and opened doors for all new forms of literary criticism in the past fifty years. But, just as New Criticism has offered new ways to critique literature, it also falls short of it’s ultimate end goal and relies heavily on old, outdated methods, aimed purely at a sophisticated, upper-class reading society. In New Essays on “The Catcher in the Rye,” Emory Elliot states in his preface that prior to the advent of New Criticism, many American novels “had come to be taken for granted by earlier generations as having  an established set of recognized interpretations” (vii). This new form of criticism was created to combat this way of thinking and learning.

New Criticism’s rise in the 1940s and 1950s called attention to the text itself, setting apart history, biography and society. Wimsatt and Beardsley state in “The Intentional Fallacy,” that “the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art” (1015). By categorizing this assumption of authorial intent as “fallacy,” they argue that the author’s intention cannot be known and that people invoke the author’s intention rhetorically to bolster their own arguments — but that this inentionality is not, in fact, “real.”  They then go on to distinguish among three types of evidence: internal, i.e. the text itself, external, which is everything outside the text, i.e. historical context, author’s biography, letters and journals, etc.; and lastly, contextual evidence, by which they mean the author’s other works that could be employed by readers in their attempts to discover the meaning of a literary work.

Well then. That’s pretty fucking limiting, isn’t it? For Wimsatt and Beardsley, internal evidence is the ONLY type of evidence that is to be used to determine the meaning of a piece of literature. Essentially, any meaning that is to be derived from a literary work can be found by doing a close reading of the text itself. Brings me back to 7th grade when it seemed like only the teacher really knew what the text was about, and only by reading closely could we lowly, young students actually even begin to grasp what the hell was going on.

For Wimsatt and Beardsley, focusing solely on the internal evidence of the words on the page prevents an imposition of a meaning that doesn’t really seem to be “in the text.” But this, however, assumes that all who take in a piece of work are aware of and understanding of all the words within the text. This is most definitely not always the case. Take, for example, a piece of work like Ulysses by James Joyce. A beautiful piece of literature with so many layers and depths of meaning the average reader needs a guide to help them along the way. What do we do with a work of literature like this? The first page of Ulysses starts out with a mock-Catholic mass as performed by Buck Mulligan.

Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressinggown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:

Introibo ad altare Dei (3).

Right at the very start it is easy for someone to get confused and not understand the humor of the action that is taking place. What if you, as a reader, are unaware of common Catholic practices? Likewise, if you don’t understand the Latin language you may not be able to figure out what is happening. What would you make of this passage?  In this case, and in many in literature, the reader will need to rely on some outside information in order to gather what is happening in the text. Therefore, the rule of “close reading,” is moot.

It seems funny to me then, in retrospect, that New Criticism was created against the idea of “recognized interpretations.” According to Emory Elliot, there was a sense among many students that “a canon was [already] established and that the larger thematic and interpretive issues had been decided” (vii).  But with so many professors in the canon holding New Criticism so sacred, I can’t help but ask, has much really changed in modern learning institutions?

What New Criticism says to me, judging by this first rule (one of many I will touch upon in later posts), is that the only people who can determine a “true meaning” of a work of art is an elite, learned, teaching and/or critiquing class. The words on a page and their sub-sequential meanings are only for those of an intellectual higher class to know and possess. The “average” reading public does not matter nor should they have any business trying to create meaning out of a text. New Criticism, in my mind, is a form of literary eugenics. A term I will use to describe all those of higher-learning facilities and the like who feel that they “hold the meaning of a text,” over the typical readers, knowing only the truth from the New Criticism gods who have handed it down to them. Authors are unnecesssary. Only the critics matter, and only if they adhere to New Criticism rules and only if they’ve established themselves as notable and respectable. Students, and even casual readers, should only aspire to be such, else their opinions do not matter, for they are not part of the elite, intellectual reading community who holds all the power.

Does this seem excessive? Dare I even say, radical? Perhaps, but lines need to be drawn and “laws” need to be broken. I ask you, should there be “rules” on thought? Rules imposed upon opinions? Should we, as a reading public, be unable to read a work in the way we choose because some highfalutin, crotchety old critics say we cannot? I think not. And I think now is the time for freedom within the field of literary criticism.

I understand that we cannot merely just step all over those who worked hard to bring us New Critcisim. Their intentions were well. But the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. It is also unfair to pass any judgments without studying the tenets of New Criticism, its origins and how it broke the mold. However, you  gotta know the rules to break the rules, and that said, after much studying of New Criticism, I think it’s time to smash the state of literary criticism as it stands.

Northrop Frye wrote in his “Anatomy of Criticism,” that in the public must move beyond New Criticism and its isolating habits of the mind, linking it to “art for art’s sake” critical doctrines and the “delicate learning” aimed for the initiated and elite few. That was in 1957. It’s 2011 now. What has changed? Now is the time for liberation of thought and mind.

I should also say that this is not an imposition. It’s an emancipation. A freeing of thought and arguments within literary criticism, but only by choice. Everyone has their own comfort zone. And when one is enjoying literature, each individual should be able to do just that…enjoy it. If you feel safer within the confines of New Criticism, then by all means, follow it. It’s is up to you to choose how you interpret a piece of literature. And if you have opinions that don’t seem to fit the mold, express them. That’s the main basis of this entire blog. A freedom of thought and mind for any and every type of literature read, because, in the end,  literature can and should be enjoyed.

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