Friday, February 11, 2011

Jeff Lemire's Essex County should have won the Canada Reads competition

Earlier this week, I tried to write a post about Jeff Lemire's Essex County getting voted off the Canada Reads competition. But as I listened to the debate and took notes, I just grew so frustrated with some of the comments being made - not just about the book but about the form of graphic novels or comic books in general - that I decided to put it aside and wait a day or two. In my haste to distance myself from the whole thing, I neglected to save my notes, and now I have to start over from scratch.

For those of you reading this from outside of Canada and who are not familiar with the competition or what it represents for the Canadian literary scene, rather than try to summarize it for you I will simply point you in the direction of Jeet Heer's Walrus article on the subject. Or, if that's too long and you just want a quick summary, check out his brief post at Comics Comics.

Essex County was the first graphic novel to make it all the way to the five finalists that are debated on the air each year. While this was a significant milestone and it gave it an edge in the competition, it was also ultimately its downfall. Every interview or discussion or critique of the book started with broad comments about the form, and what it means for a graphic novel to be part of the competition, whether it can even be considered a novel, let alone one that can be compared in terms of value or merit or impact or significance to more traditional literature. As a result, there was hardly any discussion of Jeff Lemire's work and what is unique about it, because so much attention was spent talking about the form. The book being part of the competition became less about this particular work of fiction by this specific artist with a unique voice in Canadian (and worldwide) literature, and more about the entire medium's struggle to be taken seriously and accepted as art. In other words, the same tired old debate people have been having since the term "graphic novel" was invented. A debate that I'd like to think most of us who read comics are over.

Nevertheless, seeing Jeff Lemire get so much attention from mainstream media - and seeing the significant boost in sales that Essex County got as a result (it's currently #8 on's bestsellers list)  - made me really happy. And I really thought the book had a good chance to make it all the way to the end and win the top spot in the competition. So I was surprised when it was eliminated on the very first day.

Jeff Lemire is taking it pretty well. After admitting that "it stings a bit more than [he] thought it would," he spends the bulk of his post focusing on the positive. And rightly so. He deserves be proud of his accomplishment.

Still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit that I'm very disappointed. It's not so much the fact that the book didn't win, but more the way that the debate took shape in that one-hour broadcast earlier this week. Not only was Essex County the first book to get dumped, but it was a near unanimous decision, with all four panelists except Sara Quin (who was championing the graphic novel) voting against it.

Some of the comments made by the other panelists were outrageous and infuriating. Here are some of the arguments they made against the book.

Ali Velshi brought up that part of Canada Reads' mandate is to promote literacy, and he didn't think that Essex County would be of any help in that regard:
I didn't want to read Essex County, because I didn't understand why it's on [the panel]. And I read it and I found it very moving. [But] it can't be the primary book that we call the most essential novel, because that's not how we are going inspire people to read. That's like the new iPod. It may be really neat, it may be the future...
At this point he was interrupted, but he came back to that idea later and added:
I am coming into this competition with the very committed idea (...) that I need this to end up as a competitiont that causes people to read more, and I'm not sure [Essex County] is that solution. (...) I don't think that's gonna solve our problems of low literacy levels. I don't think that's gonna solve our problem of creative and interpretive thinking.
Well, I think that's a pretty stupid criterion to be basing the literary or artistic merit of a book on, and I'm not sure it should be what the panelists are basing their votes on at all. But even if it were, his argument doesn't hold for two reasons: First, there's absolutely no evidence that graphic novels don't encourage people to read more. In fact, I would be inclined to believe that exactly the opposite is true. And second, the ability to read and understand comics is also a kind of literacy, and one might argue that it is just as important as knowing how to read prose. Interpreting images, being conscious of how they convey meaning, learning how to read - yes, read! - them is just as vitally important in developing "creative and interpretive thinking" as reading prose is. 

Lorne Cardinal's arguments made even less sense:
Essex County is a gateway to reading. I love the book, I love the form, but in my view it is not a novel. (...) Then we have the other end of the spectrum, a Pulitzer-prize winning novelist whose whole life is words, making words and stories, and making you think. It's what literature should be. It should be a way to get people to think of things that they don't normally... Think of things instead of things, you know, like iPods.
Think of things instead of things? And because Jeff Lemire is not a Pulitzer-winning novelist, his story doesn't make you think of things? Whatever. The most bewildering thing about Cardinal's vote against Essex County was that when asked which characters he found most memorable, from the four books other than the one he was defending, he picked the characters from Lemire's book. But I guess they didn't make him think of "things," or maybe they made him think of the wrong kinds of things, so he had to vote against it?

Georges Laraque didn't really have a lot of say about the book, so I'll skip over his remarks.

And last, but certainly not least, here's what Debbie Travis said:
I think it's a nice book. It really is a good book. But as the essential novel? It's like saying tweeting with 140 character gets you writing. No, it doesn't get you writing. It actually takes it in the other direction. So the danger of that book... I think this is a shortcut. I read this in an hour and a half.
Apparently, she's doesn't realize how insulting it is to compare someone's work - all the years of developing their craft and style and storytelling talent - to a 140-character posts on fucking Twitter! And when host Jian Ghomeshi pointed out that even though she read it in an hour an a half, you could spend more time with the book, she simply responded, "No, you can't."

On the one hand, Debbie Travis' comments are the most infuriating, but on the other hand we shouldn't get too worked up about them because they hold the less weight. She dismisses the book as fluff and is unwilling to engage with the work on a deeper level, so that pretty much disqualifies her from really saying anything meaningful about it. At least Ali Velshi admitted to being moved by the book and was surprised by how much depth it had, even though he was originally skeptical of the form. He voted against it for ideological reasons, but there's nothing to suggest that he didn't treat it seriously.

Debbie Travis didn't even take the competition itself too seriously. Right from the start, she said she didn't care about any of the books except the one she was defending. So why bother reading them carefully? In fact, why bother reading them at all? In the second round of debate (after Essex County had been eliminated) she admitted that she never bothered to finish one of the novels because it was too boring to hold her interest. Mind-bogglingly, the book she couldn't finish was Best Laid Plans, which ultimately won the competition and which she never once voted against! How does that make any sense?

When the votes were counted after the first round, Sara Quin was visibly disappointed, and (without using those words) she more or less told the other panelists that they were a bunch of old-fashioned elitists too afraid to take risks:
I'm disappointed but not surprised. I do think you represent the demographic that isn't gonna read this book, and I think it's a shame because it's a retro sort of idea. These types of books are accepted as novels. And I do think that this is the type of book that's gonna grab a younger viewership. And these books are all great, but they are more more traditional and safe, and I totally understand why this book would scare people, especially with the tight upper neck... 
It got a laugh from the audience and scoffs from the other panelists.

To end this on a positive note, I'll mention that Essex County won in the People's Choice poll, getting over 50% of the votes. To me, that really shows the mass appeal that Lemire's work truly has. I sincerely believe that Essex County should have won, and that a lot of Canadians would have enjoyed reading it and would have been surprised by what it had to offer. Of course, the ones that really want to read it can still do so - nobody's stopping them just because it was voted off the competition. But it would have been nice for it to have that symbolic victory.

Anyway. Congratulations, Jeff Lemire. Still a remarkable achievement.

(Related post: Jeff Lemire at Drawn and Quarterly)


Corey February 11, 2011 at 4:42 PM  

Great post. I too was initially so annoyed I couldn't directly address it. But I did post a blog (at, if you're interested) addressing how reading comics and reading novels is a different experience which doesn't invalidate comics and graphic novel as a legitimate literary experience. It's its own language that also uses the language of the written word as one aspect of it.

Anyway, Essex County is a beautiful graphic novel that deserves all of the accolades it has received and more.

Ian Aleksander Adams February 12, 2011 at 7:07 PM  

honestly though, I'm not quite sure why this panel was chosen to make the decision. And as much as the book's champion seems like a nice person, the video I saw of her "championing" it was in no way convincing - kind of meandering, didn't really talk about the book at all. Maybe I missed something.

Anyway, it's great to see the book succeed in People's Choice and I think Lemire still has a long career ahead of him. One I'm very much looking forward to!

joncormier February 14, 2011 at 9:07 AM  

Yan, thanks for putting voice to my thoughts as well. I too was just incredibly frustrated by the whole thing - dismissal of form rather than content. None of the people arguing against it could see a lot of the inherent contradictions in their own arguments - they were looking for the book with the widest appeal as well as a "Canadian" voice (or something like that). So they got rid of the one that is the most likely to appeal to younger readers because it had pictures.

I just fall back onto the idea that graphic novels force readers to think and talk about what they've read in a new way. It's a hard thing to do and none of them wanted to come across as uninformed or sounding unintelligent. It was simply too hard for them to talk about it.

Really, is looking at pictures different from reading description? Apparently it is here because someone can draw it rather than use words.

Yan Basque February 14, 2011 at 10:01 AM  

Thanks for all the comments.

In my mind, there's no question that comics and graphic novels are different from other types of literature. I think it would be very difficult to argue that they are the same thing.

What I was trying to get at in my post, and I'm not sure I really expressed it all that clearly, was that in spite of all the exposure and added sales for this particular book (which we're all happy about), having this kind of public debate about graphic novels doesn't really do the form justice, and ultimately maybe it does more harm than good. They allowed the graphic novel in the competition only to then basically disqualify it based on its form. And the reason this happened is that the judges were basically comics illiterate.

Jon, I think you bring up a good point, that having an intelligent discussion about graphic novels is difficult. I've been blogging about comics for almost a year now and I still struggle with it every time I try to write a review. I'm an English lit major and I've written tons of essays about novels and poetry, but writing about comics is a big challenge for me. Which is part of the appeal. It forces me to exercise a different intellectual muscle. And that's why I think Ali Velschi's case against Essex County is the one that hurts the most, because he misses the point completely. "I don't think that's gonna solve our problem of creative and interpretive thinking." I couldn't disagree more. Asking people to think about images not just as something that you take in passively, but something that you *read*, something that carries meaning and that can be interpreted - that's an enormously important thing for people to learn. In other words, the book is doing exactly what he is accusing it of not being able to do, which says a lot about his own "problem of creative and interpretive thinking."

joncormier February 15, 2011 at 9:13 AM  

Yeah, it's a weird connundrum and one I've struggled with a lot. For a long time I've only written about plot or characters in my posts about comics. I'm trying to develop the language for exploring art and how that aspect creates meaning for these works.

I've dabbled in drawing but certainly don't consider myself a visual artist. That has helped me with some of the vocabulary, and it's (I think) at the core of this dismissive attitude. I think it comes off as sounding more dismissive than it really is. I do think the panellists were genuinely interested and surprised by Essex County. I also think they were overwhelmed with the struggle to have meaningful discussions about it and what constitutes literature. It's called "Canada Reads" not "Canada picks a novel."

I guess the thing that really bothered me most was that this attitude of images discounting something being a novel. Does that mean we don't include texts like Tristram Shandy or any book by Vonnegut where he doodles in it?

I'm trying my best to not get worked up by it, and hopefully it means I'm not coming across as too pompous. But like it or not, all texts are inherently visual unless you're listening to an audio book.

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