In the mid-twentieth century, philosopher Marshall McLuhan famously coined the phrase, “the medium is the message.” According to McLuhan, the medium itself (paperback book vs. highway billboard, for example), not the content (plot, characters, theme and so on) is the deciding factor in determining whether or not something is a novel.
Is McLuhan right? Let’s figure it out together!
Art is a form of communication. The way a work of art gets the artist’s message across is through its medium; that is, through the real-life objects that the artist uses to create the art. For a painter, the medium could be watercolors or oil paint or acrylic. For a musician, it could be a saxophone or a piano or a drum. When it comes to the literary arts, medium is especially important — and especially hard to distinguish.
To get us started, here’s a deceptively simple question for you: what is a novel?
The dictionary definition of a novel is: “an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals with human experience through a connected sequence of events.” That seems suitably vague. And it says nothing about the medium through which the consumer interacts with this “invented prose narrative.”
When the term “novel” first came into use in the 1500s, the medium of narrative storytelling was limited. You had print and you had live performance. That was it. Now, centuries later, if a novel appears in digital rather than print form, like ebooks and online serials, is it still a novel? What about an audiobook — is it a novel or is it a performance? And, perhaps most controversially of all, are comic books literature or visual art?
Is a graphic novel really a novel?
In order to answer this question, let’s turn our attention to the 2004 book It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Snoopy by Charles M. Schulz. Here’s how the book presents itself:
The world’s most talented beagle has found a new career—as a writer, of course! The Literary Ace works feverishly on his typewriter, day and night, atop his doghouse. And while Snoopy is busy writing the next Great American Novel, you can be sure that the rest of the Peanuts gang will try to get in in on the action—especially that “round-headed kid,” Charlie Brown. ‘Cause it just wouldn’t be a story without some great characters—the ones right under our favorite doggy virtuoso’s nose!
Spoiler: it isn’t “a story” at all. This particular volume is a bare-bones round up of unrelated “Peanuts” comics, with a few “Snoopy writes his novel” panels thrown in. There is no plot and, as a result, the characters are inconsistent and indistinguishable. There is no discernable theme. With the exception of a very strange panel in which Snoopy muses, “Did Jesus ever own a dog?” there is nothing that indicates that Schulz had anything to communicate. With no communication, there’s no art.
But the content doesn’t matter, if we accept McLuhan’s thesis. The medium is what determines whether this is a novel or not. It’s a print book, clocking in at 160 pages. It’s divided into sections that could be considered chapters. And it’s got text. With an estimated word count of just 10,000, or less than 30 pages in a standard paperback, that makes it a strong contender for shortest novel ever written.
If it really is a novel.
Is a picture worth a thousand words? And if so, are images a form of text that can be “read?”
No. Here’s why.
How would you render this image from It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Snoopy as text?
Maybe “Snoopy is lying on the roof of his doghouse, looking at his food dish.”
Or “Snoopy is sprawled on the roof of his doghouse, looking at his food dish.”
Or “A cartoon dog with black ears stares down at a smoking firepit.”
Or “It’s a mild spring afternoon. A hedge is in the background. In the foreground are a dog, a doghouse, and a trapezoid with four leaf-shaped symbols hovering above it. Around the doghouse and the trapezoid are hatch-marks indicating grass. The numbers 4 and 29, separated by a hyphen, appear in the bottom right corner. The overall impression is of apprehension.”
Or maybe “Quelque chose est tombé dans la nourriture du chien.”
Or possibly “狗的食物里有些东西掉了。”
Or even “I have no idea,” if you’re visually impaired.
Everyone describes images differently. The same person might describe an image differently from one day to the next, in fact. If the likelihood of finding two readers who produce an identical, word-for-word interpretation of just one image is low, the odds of them coming up with the same translations-to-text of all the images in a book is nil. To paraphrase one of the primary tenets of the scientific method, if a reading of an image cannot be repeated to produce the same results, this implies that the original reading might not be universal.
A comic book — or graphic novel, if you prefer — cannot be performed, converted into an audiobook, or even read out loud because the graphic elements can’t be converted into spoken or written language. The images are the medium; the images are the message. Just as films, paintings, operas and stand-up comedy routines aren’t novels, neither are comic books. Whether they are a form of literature or not has been debated for years. Some in the industry say yes, others strongly disagree.
Is language the true dividing line between visual and literary art? Maybe.
Should we stop classifying long-form comic books as “graphic novels” and instead acknowledge that they fall into their own medium, the medium of “visual literature?” I don’t know.
The one thing I know for sure is It Was a Dark and Stormy Night, Snoopy is not the world’s shortest novel. And further, no matter how few words a comic book or graphic novel or manga or children’s picture book might contain, it isn’t going to be a contender for the shortest novel ever written because the operative word here is “written.” If the medium of drawing is eliminated, the message is lost.
Don’t believe me? On the page that includes the picture of Snoopy on his doghouse, this is how the text reads without the images:
Quick, Marcie…is the first question “true” or “false”? “True” How do you know? Because I did my homework and studied for the test… Wow! Let him hit it, pitcher! We’re behind you a thousand percent!! BONK! How about .001? The sound of the waves crashing against the sides of my water dish always puts me to sleep…
Any idea what’s going on without the pictures? Me either.
Oh, and it turns out it was a water dish Snoopy was gazing upon, not a food dish. So much for trying to read images as text.
Be sure to check out my extremely short novel The Drowned Town. Right now, it’s free to download and read. What do you think? Is it really a novella, a short story, or something else?
Next up: The Comedian by Joseph O’Connor.