Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Paul Theroux: "Comics spell the end...perhaps of writing itself."

Paul Theroux is an excellent writer and I very much enjoyed his collection of short pieces in the recent Atlantic Monthly Fiction Issue, but...the man really truly genuinely doesn't understand or respect the comics medium in the same egregiously stupid way that so many authors, intellectuals and numbskull "critics" have trashed the medium in the past. The following is an excerpt from Theroux's latest non-fiction book, that is as seething an indictment of comics and its readers (and Japanese culture) as you're likely to find.


Chapter 28
Night Train To Hokkaido

I had seen Japanese comics books on my Railway Bazaar trip and was mildly shocked by them, especially in their images of crepitation and vomiting and preposterous sex acts. The singular depictions of farting and puking set them apart in my reading experience. I was reflecting on this in an internet café when I saw a man across the aisle wearily turning the pages of a thick magazine that was mainly comics, not one strip but a whole cartoon novel.

These comics were a greater elaboration of Japanese life than I had seen before, not going deeper but sprawling, producing a glut of superficiality. By contrast, the bookstores were not well stocked. Manga and the graphic novel seemed to represent a dumb, defiant anti-intellectualism, though there were plenty of people who argued that they were art on a par with ukiyo-e. But however well drawn, modern manga were banal or silly or sheer fantasy, hastily and crudely drawn compared with the work of the great printmakers. I found Hokusai’s erotic prints much more powerful, indeed sexier, than these ludicrous comics.

[At the internet café] many of the users were merely sitting in a plump cushioned armchair reading one of the fat comics books. But “comics books” did not do them justice. They appeared in multi-issue sequences, like Victorian magazines Household Worlds or All The Year Round, which printed David Copperfield in installments over many months. Nana was one of these--not the Zola novel but thirty-five issues of a Japanese cartoon character and her picaresque and often sexual adventures. Other narratives concerned tough guys, schoolkids, gang-bangers, mobsters, adventurers, sports, fashion, motor racing, and of course hard-core porno--rape, strangulation, abduction. Even with declining sales, from a peak of $5 billion a year, graphic novels in some form are probably the future of popular literature. --increasingly they are being downloaded to cell phones. Purely pictorial pleasure, undemanding, without an idea or a challenge, yet obviously stimulating, a sugar high like junk food, another softener of the brain; they spell the end of the traditional novel, perhaps the end of writing itself.

In a fascinating sidenote Theroux's older brother Alexander Theroux published his 2007 novel Laura Warholic through American comic book publisher Fantagraphics.
At the time Fantagraphics Publisher Gary Groth (forever desperate to get some respect outside of his microscopic corner of an oft-disrespected medium) said getting a novelist of Theroux's stature was his dream come true. "Literary fiction inspired the kind of comics we publish here and I've wanted to publish literary fiction myself for the last 15 years or so. It's been a kind of quixotic goal to find the prose equivalent of our comics." Also worth pointing out that much of what Paul Theroux disdains in manga--farting, puking, crepitation--are the very lifeblood of Fantagraphics stalwarts like Johnny Ryan.

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