Yang's American Born Chinese

In college I worked at Waldenbooks around the time when the company began shelving African American literature in its own section. This was in the early 1990s, shortly after Terry McMillan’s novel, Waiting to Exhale, and Invisible Life by E. Lynn Harris, were topping bestseller lists.  All kinds of readers flocked to the bookstore looking for black popular fiction then, and every once in a while, after browsing the section, they would leave the store with a new and unexpected mystery, science fiction, or literary title by a black author. We sold a LOT more books by Walter Mosley, Octavia Butler, and Toni Morrison during those early years.

A similar pattern has occurred with comics in bookstores and libraries. The surge in trade paperback comics, graphic novels, and the popularity of manga titles, have led stores to clear new spaces and endcaps. Online bookstores don’t have shelves of course, but they do engage in classification systems that are intended to guide and market to readers’ interests. Browsing the graphic novel section one afternoon was how I discovered one of my favorite comics, a short stocky book that didn’t quite sit right on the shelf.

 

After I had been working at Waldenbooks (and later, at Borders) for a few years, I noticed that attitudes toward the African American literature section had shifted. Readers of all races began making troubling assumptions about the content of the books despite the range of genres that were shelved there. Customers who were unaware that a particular author was African American searched aisles of “general fiction” shelves confused. Occasionally I noticed that my co-workers would incorrectly stock a book in the section if it had a black person on the cover. No wonder more and more bookstores are moving away from this practice.

But what about comics? In my local public library, the majority of the comics and graphic novels are housed in “juvenile fiction” sections. This is where I find titles like Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, Jeremy Love’s Bayou, and James Sturm and Rich Tommaso’s Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow. I’ve learned over the years that, no matter what a publisher may suggest, deciding where a book is shelved is based largely on the discretion of the venue in which it is sold or exchanged. But do these choices also shape our reading experience as well?

I have encountered readers who are reluctant to pick up American Born Chinese once they realize that they have to walk through the Judy Blume books to pick it up. Friends ask me if it is okay to give Bayou to their elementary school-age kids since the main character is a little girl. But I’m less interested here in issues of age-appropriate content, than in the choices we make when selecting new material to read. In a medium that has a long history of being associated with children’s entertainment, but also remains steeped in post-code creative frontiers in which explicit language and images are the norm, the expectations that move us to pick up a comic are constantly being challenged.

What kind of comic book reader would you be if Kazu Kibuishi’s Amulet series from Scholastic were shelved alongside Bill Willingham’s Fables series from Vertigo? Or what if John Layman and Rob Guillory’s Chew were simply housed among other detective fiction titles? How does the shelf on which a comic appears affect how we read it?

About Qiana Whitted

Associate Professor of English and African American Studies

5 responses »

  1. Qiana,
    Your questions about how a space constructs an identity are fascinating. I imagine how difficult these questions must be to answer for any book store manager. Creating a separate African American section, for example, can highlight important artistic achievements that might otherwise be overlooked were those books shelved in an ordinary alpha-by-author fashion along with all the others.

    For me, the learning curve for how to navigate a comic book store was rather steep. In fact, just a few years ago was the first time I even went into a comic book store. I found that the organization of the books was similar in some ways to traditional book stores like Walden or Borders (RIP), but there were also significant differences. In fact, I’m still getting my mind around the system of back-issues!

    As a result, when I walk into a comic book store, I often feel like a novice reader…not because I don’t know much about comics but because I have to make a conscious effort and shift the way that I think about books and order and how to find things.

    • Hi Frank – although you left this comment almost a month ago (!), I still wanted to say thanks. I guess my post here didn’t really address the unique situation in comic book stores! My local shop puts almost everything in alphabetical order by series title, which means I end up glancing at nearly every issue unless I know exactly what I’m looking for. So I share your frustration on that front, but then I find something interesting that I didn’t expect which is always cool. Of course, now that I’m reading single issues on my iPad, I don’t do as much exploring as I once did…

  2. roytcook says:

    This is a really fascinating question – one that raises a lot of issues, and touches on a number of different topics.

    As someone who has never worked in a bookstore, I admit to being constantly and consistently confused by the methods for organizing comics and graphic novels. The first, and most perplexing thing, of course, is that the rules do not seem settled – either within the industry generally or even within a particular store over time. This suggests that comics are still trying to find their ‘niche’, just as African American literature was (and I assume still is) doing. (On a related note, I can just imagine the insane conversations that went along something like the following lines: “This author is black” “But she is British.” “Where the #@$% do we put her?”)

    One practical worry, of course, is that there are many really good comics that mainstream readers might not be exposed to, or aware of, due to odd shelving practices. For example, Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home is usually shelved with the graphic novels, but the reprint volume of her comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For is usually (I assume due to some misguided idea about adult or controversial content) shelved in the LGBT section. (Of course, one can also imagine horror stories about books that have probably been shelved there based on cover art).

    [Oddly, as someone who has spent a significant percentage of his life in comic speciality shops – yes, I had a pull-list for much of my teenage years – I find the organizational structure of comic shops less confusing. This is almost certainly due to consistency within shops and over time, however, and not due to any inherent rationality in their shelving systems.]

    Setting aside the practical issues, however, there is the deeper issue raises in the title of the post. How does the location of a comic within the bookstore effect the way that we read the comic? One example of this that I am very aware of at present is the difference between the humor section and the graphic novel section in most bookstores. Regardless of content, newspaper strip reprint volumes get placed in humor, while trade paperbacks are placed in the graphic novel section. Of course, newspaper reprints are not graphic novels, but then again, most of the stuff in the graphic novel section has a tenuous-at-best claim to that title (actually, I don’t believe there is any such thing as a ‘graphic novel’, but that is another issue for another day). Additionally, many newspaper comics are not at all humorous (e.g. Prince Valiant). The real problem, however, is that there seems to be some sort of implicit value judgement in the graphic novel / humor distinction. Humor is still for kids (regardless of the fact that Prince Valiant lives there) while graphic novels are now all grown up. But this will have obvious (and unfortunate) effects on how we evaluate and value Peanuts versus Persepolis.

    Furthermore, having one’s book shelved with literature (or history, or biography, etc.) instead of in the graphic novel section (or, even worse, the humor section) is still taken by many to be a special, and quite positive, distinction. Usually this is thought of in terms of the work in question being accepted as ‘real’ literature. Somehow, this seems misguided to me. If I created a comic, I wouldn’t want it shelved with the DVDs! Why on earth would I want it shelved with, and mistaken for, literature?

    [Okay, this last bit clearly has some assumptions of my own regarding the ‘are comics literature?’ question built in. In order not to embark on a rant even rantier than the rant I have already ranted, I will stop here.]

    • My apologies to you also, Roy, for failing to respond to all the terrific issues and questions you raise in your comment. Your remark about the odd distinction between the humor and graphic novel is an excellent example of the concerns I have about the way comics are shelved. Then again, I am always surprised when I ask new students in my comics class what titles they read; there is always one or two who say they don’t read comics, but when I say, what about Peanuts or Garfield? the response is – oh yeah, but those don’t count! So I guess the stores are trying to address different types of reading audiences, but make assumptions about their interests in the process.

      On another note, I once thought that the popularity of manga in major bookstores would get readers to see the “graphic novel” section as based on media rather than genre. But now they put manga on their own shelves (sometimes in the “teen” or “young adult” section!) so hmm…

  3. roytcook says:

    Another aspect of this issue struck me. When comics get placed in their own section, is that meant – and is it understood by readers as – a distinction based on media differences or a distinction based on genre differences? In other words, should we understand the fact that there is a separate graphic novels section (when there is one) in the same way that we understand the separate DVD section (literature and DVDs are different media), or should we understand it in the same way that we understand the separate fantasy and science fiction section (science fiction is a particular genre within literature)?

    I suspect the answer to this question is complex.

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