our books, our shelves

April 20th, 2006 | Uncategorized

Does it make sense for bookstores to put graphic memoirs about war, cancer, and domestic violence on the same shelf as Batman? An article in today’s Philadelphia Enquirer ponders this searching question, and in the process makes a brief mention of my forthcoming book “Fun Home.”

Telling serious stories through cartooning is not novel, of course. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, about his father’s experiences during the Holocaust, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. And Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi, about a girl’s life in Iran during the Islamic revolution, came out in 2003 and has become required reading for cadets at West Point.

“But what is new is that now graphic memoirs are beginning to show up on the lists of traditional publishers’ releases,” says Calvin Reid, an editor at Publishers Weekly who specializes in comics.

In other words, the big boys of the book world have come to comics and, Reid says, that is likely to change how graphic literature is shelved in bookstores, marketed by publishers, and, ultimately, received by the public.

In March, Abrams Image published Mom’s Cancer by Web cartoonist Brian Fies, and this month, Harper Paperbacks will release Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg. Houghton Mifflin will release Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel, about her closeted gay father, in June, and in September, Knopf will launch Cancer Vixen: A True Story, by New Yorker cartoonist Marisa Acocella Marchetto.

“Bookstores have embraced graphic novels, but until now they’ve stayed in the graphic novel section, alongside science fiction and supernatural stories,” says David Roth-Ey, editorial director of Harper Perennial Paperbacks. “I think Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person will be put in the health section, and that’s a first for us. This could be a new wave.”

11 Responses to “our books, our shelves”

  1. Megan says:

    Grammar cop here, but the newspaper is the Inquirer.

    As an aside, in my last library, we had two places for graphic novels – mostly in the popular reading room (although they did get full LC cataloging and call numbers there), but some in the regular stacks at their call number.

  2. Minnie-sota says:

    I was just about to mention libraries, but Megan beat me to it. In any case, it will be interesting to see where libraries in my area shelve your new graphic memoir.

  3. Anonymous says:

    and let’s see where the highstreet bookshops shelve it, too – my local (Waterstones in Gower Street, London WC1 likes to hide the DTWOF books in the upper shelves of sociology!

  4. Jaibe says:

    To be fair to Batman, I’d be happy to ever write something as good as The Dark Knight (Frank Miller)

  5. bea says:

    Strikes me as a little odd that of the four upcoming releases they mentioned, 3 appear to be about cancer. The fourth being Fun Home.

    Fun Home isn’t also secretly about cancer, is it?

  6. Anonymous says:

    V for Vendetta is a graphic novel and is perhaps one of the best pieces of literature ever written and it’s kept beside comic books as well. Many graphic novels are extremely well written and kept beside the latest issues from DC and Marvel. I don’t see this as a slight at all, rather more like giving you an opportunity to present a novel to a pretty wide audience. More people read comic books than one would normally think.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Starrai says:

    Sadly, this is really not uncommon practice. Graphic Novels and Comics in general have been all lumped together for so long, it’s hard for people to realize that they might actually be different genres, as opposed to “those funny books for kids”. To be honest, I was a comics nerd first, and it came as a great surprise to me that comics material could be found outside the Graphic Novel or Humor section.

    However. DTOWF and stuff like Curbside Boys and Ethan Green are all in the “Gay/Lesbian” section of most major bookstore chains instead of the Graphic Novel section. I can’t tell if this is marginalization or recognition. Such is the conundrum of two oppressed literary traditions coming together.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Fascinating discussion.
    More on libraries…

    Maus is one of the few graphic novels that has been classified by the Library of Congress as a work on a topic rather than a work by format. This means it gets shelved with other books on the Holocaust rather than with other graphic novels.
    The call numbers for Maus are:
    LC: D810.J4;
    Dewey: 741.59/73
    The LC call number is with books on the Holocaust, the Dewey call number is with graphic novels.

    Persepolis has call numbers of:
    LC: PN6747.S245 (graphic novels)
    Dewey: 955.05/42/092 (Biography)

    Fun Home has been classified as a graphic novel by the LC.
    The LC and Dewey call numbers are:
    LC: PN6727.B3757
    Dewey: 741.5/973

    LC does not seem to have added any additional subjects to the books other than:
    Bechdel, Alison, 1960- –Comic books, strips, etc.
    Cartoonists–United States–Comic books, strips, etc.

    This means that in most libraries the book will be shelved with items by format rather than by topic.

    Not very consistant.

  9. Jaibe says:

    Maus is truly awesome and amazing, but so is Persepolis. In 1986 I read Dark Knight & Maus and thought there was a new artistic genre, but then I had to wait two decades to read something that went even further. (I haven’t read V yet, to be fair; I have heard about it.) Anyway, anyone who doesn’t put Persepolis on the same grounds as Maus is not doing us any favours in winning any hearts and minds.

    If I had a billion dollars, I would send a copy of Perspolis to every 14 year old girl in America and hope that would head off the war with Iran. (Someone in the administration must be related to a 14 year old girl…)

    I guess to be fair though “graphic novel” didn’t mean anything in 1986, maybe Maus helped change that.

  10. Jason says:

    The kind of funny thing, I guess, is that this arrangement was brought about intentionally by some pretty well-known comics people — Chris Oliveiros of D&Q, Art Spiegelman, and others, who appealed directly to the Book Industry Standards And Communications (BISAC) group . The plan was to remove graphic novels from the science-fiction and roleplaying game ghetto and into a new graphic novel section with subcategories, so you wouldn’t have to find Powerpuff Girls right next to Preacher. The thing is, most bookstores focus on manga more than any other kind of comic, so it’s not really in their best interest to subdivide things into categories when the rest of what you have could apparently be split into “autobiography,” “politics,” and “other” (or “both”).

    That said, the format of comics is still a major draw for would-be buyers, such that it does make some sense for bookstores to be shelving these things together for the time being. Clever bookstore owners will shelve things in two places as needed, I’ve found.

  11. elswhere says:

    I’m a school librarian and am starting to see some nonfiction books in graphic-“novel”/comic format through library-oriented publishers. Biographies, books about Pearl Harbor, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, that kind of thing. I’ve bought some, and have been wavering about where to put them, since unlike booksellers I can’t shelve them in two places (unless I get two copies, and I won’t b/c it’s a small library).

    This post is pushing me in the direction of shelving them by their subject, not necessarily in 741.5 with all the other comic books. Though I kind of had this hope that Garfield-crazy kids might get interested in the civil rights movement that way…