Genre Fiction, Best Of and Media

Michael Peterson's latest comics column in The House Next Door, which is a fascinating analysis of comics as cartography, contains this aside:

The Best American Comics was established three years ago as a counterpart to other "Best American" collections of prose writing and has largely maintained the same roster of talent in each annual edition.


I was digging through some old notes in preparation for this installment on an especially bitter night in 2005, after attending a gallery opening here in Chicago hosted by cartoonist Ivan Brunetti, editor of a Yale anthology of comics very similar to the "Best American" books. The gallery featured the same few folks; I hurled out some invective that evening, some of which I'm inclined to retract and some of which is still true today:

Brunetti is part of that society of cartoonists that holds our most public faces—Spiegelman and Ware, Chester Brown and Seth and Joe Matt, Daniel Clowes and Adrian Tomine and the rest of those who hold Schultz and Crumb as the binary star which we should orbit. They're the ones that sit at the Big Kids Table, and at this point, we're resigned to it. They're married to our roots in the daily and Sunday strips, and for many, that form is what informs their every creation, a view that cannot be disentangled. The comic book as a unit is the stuff of old pulps. To stray too far into genre territory, other than as an ironic metaphor, is to obfuscate your message and resign yourself to obscurity.

This all reminded me quite a lot of my own questioning of genre's acceptance by the mainstream critical world. After all this site was practically founded as a reaction to the predominance of quotidian, autobiographical, realist fiction in the "literary" world, exactly the kind of fiction that dominates both the Best American Comics and (usually) the Best American Short Stories anthologies.

With that in mind, let's take a look at the critical estimation of works in verious media, as judged by some well-known "best of" lists.

In 1999, The Comics Journal (the standard-barer for series comics criticism and commentary), put out its list of the 100 best comics of all time. Here's the top ten:

1. Krazy Kat by George Herriman
2. Peanuts by Charles Schultz
3. Pogo by Walt Kelly
4. Maus by Art Spiegelman
5. Little Nemo in Slumberland by Winsor McCay
6. Sick, Sick, Sick by Jules Feiffer
7. Donald Duck by Carl Barks
8. Mad Magazine 1-24 by Harvey Kutzman and others
9. Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary by Justin Green
10. Weirdo by Robert Crumb

Michael Peterson might lament that the top three are all newspaper strips (as are numbers five and six), and autobiographical, slice-of-life material is well-represented (Maus, Binky Brown, Weirdo) but I would draw attention to the other genres also represented: plenty of humor (and for our purposes today, we'll call that a separate genre), anthropomorphic animals and fantasy.

Now let's look at the top ten movies of all time, as rated by film critics and filmmakers on the site The Shoot Pictures Don't They:

1. Citizen Kane dir. Orson Welles
2. Vertigo dir. Alfred Hitchcock
3. The Rules of the Game dir. Jean Renoir
4. 2001: A Space Odyssey dir. Stanley Kubrik
5. 8 1/2 dir. Federico Fellini
6. The Godfather dir. Francis Ford Coppola
7. The Searchers dir. John Ford
8. The Seven Samurai dir. Akira Kurasawa
9. Tokyo Story dir. Yasujiro Ozu
10. Sunrise dir. F. W. Murnau

Here we have a thriller (Vertigo), a comedy (Rules of the Game), science fiction (2001), a mobster movie (Godfather), a Western (The Searchers) and a samurai movie (Seven Samurai). A pretty good representation of genres, I'd say.

Now, just for kicks, let's look at the top ten from TV Guide's 50 best television shows of all time:

1. Seinfeld
2. I Love Lucy
3. The Honeymooners
4. All in the Family
5. The Sopranos
6. 60 Minutes
7. The Late Show with David Letterman
8. The Simpsons
9. The Andy Griffith Show
10. Saturday Night Live

Remarkable here is the almost complete dominance of comedy. Only two shows listed aren't primarily humorous, The Sopranos and 60 Minutes, and fully half are sit-coms.

Now, for the heart of the matter. The top ten books from the Modern Library's famed 100 best American books of the 20th Century list (which covers more or less the same time period as all the above lists):

1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
3. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce
4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Brave New World by Aldus Huxley
6. The Sound and the Fury by William Falkner
7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
8. Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler
9. Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence
10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

How many genres are represented here? There's science fiction (Brave New World) and humor (Catch-22). Otherwise, while it's true that Lolita has its funny moments, and Ulysses and The Sound and the Fury their experimentation, the rest is still basically realism, straight through. And dour realism at that; with the exceptions of Catch-22, Ulysses and maybe Lolita (depending on how you read it), these books are pretty relentlessly downbeat and tragic. Not that that's a bad thing per se, but that the portrayal of tragedy (in the modern sense) is hardly the only thing that can make a novel great.

Of course, the "Reader's List" presented in the next column is a study in contrast, and the fact that it's topped with two books by Ayn Rand and one by L. Ron Hubbard (and that the top ten contains another book by Rand and two more by Hubbard) indicates, if nothing else, how import ideology is to many people's reading habits.

Anyway, I grant that top-ten lists are contentious at best, and granted also is that this little survey of lists is hardly inclusive or scientific. But I have to ask; why can a medium like film comfortably represent so many different genres in its own conception of "best," while book critics are so entrenched in one particular one. (Much as, strangely enough, television critics are.) This is the prejudice that extends to the Best American collections (a trend bucked admirably by Michael Chabon's editorship on the 2005 collection, though surprisingly not so much by Stephen King in 2007, who, one suspects, was trying to prove something). And it's this prejudice which poisons the Best American Comics, a prejudice not really of the comics world (the Comics Journal list goes on to include such diverse works as Love and Rockets, The Spirit, Terry and the Pirates, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers and that most legendary of great comics works, Watchmen), but one carried over from the book world.

So why is this? How did this come to be the case? Right now I want to leave the question open, and I invite comments. This may, though, become the launching point for a cross-medium exploration of essays in the future.