And Now for Something Completely Novel…

It’s wintertime in England, and you’re mesmerized by the silky wisps of white curling into the air as you wait almost breathlessly for the doors to open. Forgetting your bones-deep predilection to queue, you’re closer to these strangers crowding the sidewalk than you’ve been to people in your family for the past few days. You’ve combed the papers, waiting to hear when it will be here. You wince as the gentleman next to you spills some of his tobacco from his pipe, but he does turn to you and nod his top hat to you as an apology. You can barely hear the horse hooves clacking on the cobblestone streets, the crowd is so lively.

Suddenly, the doors open, and a little boy with a newspaper hat is propped up on his papa’s shoulders. You’re trying to push down your desire to pull the tall man in front of you out of the crowd so you can better see the child.

The wind has favored you; a gentle gust–too gentle for this time of year–ruffles the papers in the little boy’s hands to reward you for your faith just when you get a big enough clearing in the crowd.

You never knew it was possible that the voice of such a sweet little cherub could command a crowd’s silence like this child can.

“And ‘ere it is!” the little boy cries, as a soft sprinkling of snow blesses the crowd. “The one you’ve been waitin’ for! The next in the story of a man consumed by greed, met with not one, not two, but THREE spirits to save him from the fiery depths of hell! Today we have chapter seven of Charles Dickens’, A Christmas Carol!”

“Who’d have thought something like this would have people freezing to death this time of year for a story?” the man who spilled tobacco on you says, lighting his pipe. You shrug and smile.

“Bloody brilliant, though, don’t you think?” you say. “I’ve never been quite this enthralled.”

“Right you are, though, quite brilliant,” the man says, blowing a smoke ring into the snowy air.

“Indeed,” you say. “A story in many parts. Quite novel.”

* * * *

There wasn’t anything new to me whenever a teacher assigned a novel for us to read over summer vacation. Even though by November 2001 I knew I wanted to be a writer, I still couldn’t get myself excited to read. I spent most of my education struggling to read novels on my own–with very few, scattered exceptions, and I didn’t even fully understand the nuances for all of them. I didn’t really develop any reading comprehension until I was in my first year of college when my professor actually took the time to really teach us how to read.

Wherever you are Mrs. Hindman, thank you.

So what’s happened? How did the novel–named so for BEING a novel concept–go from the talk of the town to the hushed whimpers of teenagers and college students alike? If someone described the events of A Christmas Carol, I’d be begging to hear more; God, that sounds like the kind of story I’d want to hear! The ultimate cross between Christmas and Halloween before The Nightmare Before Christmas!

And then I open the book and the first chapter of the novel is as long as…well, a novel. God, Dickens, what’s with the dense diction? Is he trying to slowly kill us so we all become like the ghosts of Christmas past?

I’m not knocking novelists; I am one. But given a few centuries have passed since Dickens’ time, I think it’s safe to say things have changed a tad.

Just a tad.

Like the advent of television.

It took me almost half my life to learn how to appreciate novels. Even when I realized I was a story teller, I just couldn’t really connect to them. And even when I cleared that hurdle, there was another: I knew how to read a novel at the tender age of eighteen, but could I write a novel?

Of course, the good thing is that there is a long line of novelists ahead of me. So many people before, during, and even some after my time are showing me how to do it. Novel writing has become quite the past time for the world since Dickens’ time. It is truly a literary tradition.

And therein, lies the problem.

Novels have faded from, well, novelty, to tradition. What do we usually associate with tradition? Rigidity. Stuffiness. Dryness.

Flat out boredom.

In the article, Calm down, book snobs. Literary awards need to enter the 21st century., there is a runner-up for the prize called Sabrina (I’ll let you read the article to see what it’s all about). A lot of people are up in arms because this novel has something you probably never saw in any novel you saw in high school: pictures. Lots. And lots. In fact, not only are there pictures, they’re hardly just decoration for the book.

The pictures are telling stories. Alongside the words.

And hey, if pictures weren’t good enough for Dickens, why for us, right?

There was once a time when novels were a new phenomenon. Entertainment was not an on-demand thing that you could get with a click from your fingers. People waited for long periods times–weeks, if not months–to hear the next installation of a story. The idea of a bound book that unfolded a story was close, but not quite in reach yet. And even then, book printing wasn’t anywhere near as fast as it is now; I could get a book uploaded and printed today if I wanted to. The world has changed so much in the past few centuries.

The issue is that novels haven’t. We writers have realized we don’t have to go on and on for pages and pages to get our points across (unless you’re Tolstoy, Tolkien, or King–and the latter two have made each page worth the turn). But the format has largely remained the same: a group of chapters lined up that build on each other that goes on for a few hundred pages. Some might have prologues and/or epilogues, but you could just look at them as extra chapters. Nobody has done much to shake up the foundations of how we define novels for a long time.

Any change is going to be met with resistance. I think most people are ok with an illustration here and there in a novel, but for them, maybe they feel it’s only a novel if the words take center stage. Allowing pictures to have the same screen time as words must feel like literary blasphemy to them.

Television, film, and art are all visual mediums. Literature–traditional novels, short stories, and poetry–is linguistic. But in the end, they all do the same thing we did when we sat around fires in the caves and passed epics down orally for centuries: tell stories. The graphic novel is simply an evolution in our quest to tell stories. It doesn’t make books as we know it obsolete; it is only helping to redefine what a novel is.

And in trying something new, it’s actually going back to its roots.

Why don’t you be the judge yourself and read it?

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

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1 thoughts on “And Now for Something Completely Novel…

  1. F.J. Dagg says:

    Neil Postman, in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” makes the case that different media have different “bandwidths,” so to speak–e.g., smoke signals are adequate to convey, “many horses come,” but cannot support a discussion of quantum physics. Similarly, the written word can express concepts inexpressible in visual media. He further suggests that in the West, peak literacy not coincidentally paralleled peak intelligence and that the decades-long shift to visual media plays a part in the coarsening of culture and the lowering of general intelligence. Definitely worth a read.

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