It's no secret that it's been a rough decade for the publishing industry. The rise of the internet and e-books (once thought a death notice for print books) led to the closures of many bookstores and many to wonder how much Americans value reading books when they spend most of their time on a screen.
Then, last week, a plot twist: the New York Times announced it is culling its bestseller lists. Among the casualties are lists in middle grade fiction, some young adult fiction lists and — to the chagrin of artists, illustrators, authors and fans — graphic novels.
“Moving to eliminate the Graphic Bestseller lists seems like a misreading of the medium’s importance and its ever-growing interest to readers,” First Second Books editor Mark Siegel told the Washington Post.
The decision is especially vexing for authors and publishers since one of the year’s most seminal graphic novels — “March: Book Three,” penned by Congressman John Lewis chronicling his days as a young civil rights activist — won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature in 2016.
"The timing of the cuts seem poorly timed, too, coming within a week of a historic landmark for comics: the third and final volume in John Lewis’s graphic autobiography March received a record-breaking four ALA Youth Media Awards earlier the very same week, not to mention having already shattered barriers by being the first graphic novel ever to win a National Book Award," bibliophile website BookRiot argued.
Times book editor Pamela Paul told the Washington Post that despite the death of these lists, “the Times is expanding its graphics-book coverage.” She explained the resources required to maintaining a best seller list and the paper had to eliminate 10 of them.
“Obviously, the bar will be raised a little bit higher for books to become New York Times bestsellers,” she said.
Coincidentally, readers accepted that challenge last week. Lewis’ “March: Book One” became the first graphic novel to crack the Top 10 on the Time’s paperback bestseller list, more than three years after its publication and less than two weeks after the Times announced its decision.
The Times' decision on graphic novels is also puzzling given a surge in sales of classic dystopian fiction.
The New York Times reported recently that Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and George Orwell’s “1984,” are enjoying renewed readership. The sales of Atwood’s 1985 classic bumped 30 percent, the Times reported, while Orwell’s iconic novels “1984” and “Animal Farm” topped Amazon’s bestseller list.
Alex Woloch, a Stanford University English professor, chalked the uptick in sales to a public stunned by President Donald Trump’s eventful first few weeks in office.
“People are hungry for frames of reference to understand this new reality,” he speculated.
If Americans really are looking to find their bearings in America’s new reality through fiction, graphic novels are one of the richest veins to mine. Characters overcoming dystopian societies is a topic plumbed regularly in graphic novels.
The wealth of graphic novels dealing with cultural sensitivity and oppression in dystopian societies (like Marjane Satrapi’s “Persepolis,” Art Spiegelman’s “Maus,” Gene Luen Yang’s “Saints,” or Brian K. Vaughan’s “Saga,” to name a few) alone is an indication of how much the medium has evolved well beyond the superhero-centric days of early comics.