Could a graphic novel be a more worthwhile work of art than, say, The Sparsholt Affair, Alan Hollinghurst’s latest book? Or than Kudos, the final part of a trilogy by Rachel Cusk? The judges of this year’s Man Booker prize believe so, since this week they chose Sabrina, Nick Drnaso’s second graphic novel, though not the heavily tipped Hollinghurst or Cusk, for a longlist that also includes Rachel Kushner’s The Mars Room, Michael Ondaatje’s Warlight and Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
It is an intriguing moment: the first time a graphic work has been recognised for a prize that usually honours those novels bracketed together as “literary fiction”. Some might ask: is the graphic novel even a novel? The term, which gradually came into use in the 1960s and 70s, brought with it a claim to seriousness that the word “comic” lacks; for many it was a corrective to the notion that comics were irredeemably childish and trashy. (Happily, for many readers this high/low distinction dissolved long ago. Art Spiegelman’s Maus won a Pulitzer in 1992, the literary imprint Jonathan Cape has been publishing graphic works for years, and Drsano’s book, published by Granta, comes garlanded with glowing reviews and lavish advance praise from Zadie Smith and Jonathan Franzen.)
On the other hand, comics studies is emerging as a serious academic discipline, laying claim to its own idiosyncratic critical arsenal. After all, a work like Sabrina cannot be judged solely in literary-critical terms. A great deal of its considerable power derives from its remarkable artwork. Drnaso’s drawings pull the reader into its chilling, affectless, dull-coloured America, in which the fruit in the fruit bowl is fake, the characters long to “get away from the internet”, and people try, and fail, to connect with each other.
Some practitioners have taken exception to the aspirational overtones of the term “graphic novelist”. When Neil Gaiman, author of Sandman, was described thus by a literary editor, he said he “felt like someone who had been informed that she wasn’t a hooker, that in fact she was a lady of the evening”. He preferred, he said, to be called a writer of comics, because that is what he was.
The question remains: how can the Man Booker judges assess the relative merits of Drnaso’s work against those of the other 12 longlisted authors, when their means of storytelling is, on the face of it, so different? Happily, that is a problem of their own making that they themselves must solve when they whittle down their choices to a shortlist in September, and finally to a winner; prize judges are necessarily in the business of comparing apples with pears. This is especially true of prizes for novels, since the form itself is slippery and ever-changing.
The inclusion of a graphic novel may have been unthinkable 50 years ago when the Man Booker was founded. But, as the judges point out, it was only a matter of time.