Wednesday, February 04, 2009

When Words Collide: Good Readers and Good Comics

Ever wonder what literary great Vladimir Nabokov might have to say about what it takes to be a good comic book reader? Ever want to see me take a Nabokov lecture completely out of context and sort of arbitrarily apply it to a different medium?

Well, your wish is granted my friend!

In this week's "When Words Collide," I explore Nabokov's introductory lecture to his Cornell students and see how it works as advice for comic book readers. And, indeed, it works well!

If we all read as Nabokov suggests, we might end up demanding better comics. We'd never find out how "Trinity" ended, though, and what a tragedy that would be!

Note: "Trinity" is bad. That was me being ironic.


Kris Krause said...

Having read many of Nabakov's short stories and knowing what I know about the way he wrote, his opinion on how people should read makes perfect sense in that context. I thought the section on a character's likability to be especially interesting because, not that I deserve to be mentioned in the same sentence as Nabokov, but as someone who writes fiction, one of the most frustrating things in the world for me to hear is a reader focused on whether or not they liked a character and not whether or not the logic defining the character within the work made sense from start to finish.

Although it's an obvious reference and would come a couple years after the lecture you used, I can't help but think of Nabokov's "The Vane Sisters" and how it was initially rejected until Nabokov pointed out the hidden meaning at the end, which required a bit more attention from the reader to fit together.

I've heard similar complaints about Morrison's work on the internet, that he needs to explain his ideas in interviews for the work to make sense, but upon enough reads and a critical look, everything he says is on the page is usually all there for the reader to piece together. So in the regard, I think you found a nice analogy.

Ben Villarreal said...

I hope you'll this positively (because that's exactly how I mean it), but I think this is one of the most important pieces you've written. Granted, I haven't read all of your work, but I've been following your blog and the links to your other pieces for a couple of months now, and this is something that could truly alter the way comics are read. And as you suggest, more educated comics readers will lead to higher standards and better comics--even if I don't fully agree with all of Nabokov's ideas.

But this raises the question of whether or not comics writers (and artists, as you continually add) are currently up to the challenge. And if not, how do we get them there? It will certainly take the work of applying criticisms for literature to comics.

Between this and your discussion of in medias res, I think you're on to something here, something that needs to be fleshed out.

Timothy Callahan said...

I teach "The Vane Sisters" every year, and only once has anyone ever discovered the secret meaning before I pointed it out.

Timothy Callahan said...

Thanks, Ben.

I actually had something different planned for this week's column, but it didn't work out in time for the deadline, so I came up with this direction instead.

I figured I was due for a polemic, and since I just taught that Nabokov lecture, it was fresh in my mind.

I know what you mean about developing these ideas further, but I really don't like prescribing what comics SHOULD be. I like analyzing and evaluating what they are and extrapolating from there.

Ben Villarreal said...

I understand completely. Having just finished my MA in English, last May, I have several academic papers on my favorite subject just lying around. And while several of my peers used those assignments to seek publication, I haven't even thought about presenting one at a conference--I'm attending a conference at the end of the month and my colleagues were surprised to learn I'd be presenting on a film panel instead of a comics one.

The truth is, I just don't know if that's what I want to do with comics, or even if that's what should be done with them. I write the faculty column for my university's student paper, and my latest editorial is on whether or not the current comics exhibition at the Louvre is necessarily a good thing for the medium--that'll be posted on my blog tomorrow (once the paper comes out).

Anonymous said...

I have just read your piece over on comicbookresources and I felt like I had to clet you know that I thought it was a fantastic piece of writing.

I'm not familiar with Nabakov's work, but I found parity with your use of his contentions about the role of the reader and it's applications to the comicbook form to be very insightful, and a breathe-of-fresh-air as they say...

I think there is a general sea-change emerging in what constitutes the general intellect of the comicbook readership. It makes me recall the advances in writing and film making that the studying of literature and cinema from a serious and engaged perspective have produced in their respective formats.

I think that this will be nothing but good news from the perspective of the universal literacy level of the comicbook medium. I think your piece if timely for this purpose.

Despite some of my own reading strategies being from a vastly different, and possibly contrasting perspective to those expressed in your contention, I do feel a desire to offer praise for what you have written.

Well done sir!


Unknown said...

I'm glad to come to your site and check the comments to find that others liked this piece as much as I did! It is seriously fantastic and very well written. It is no surprise to me that you're a teacher. I'd write more here but I just got done posting my thoughts on my site and pointing people towards your obvious talent. I'll definitely be following your blog from now on and probably back reading your older stuff for weeks. Keep up the the good work!