In defence of Giles Coren

30 November 2012

Giles Coren’s piece in the latest issue of the Spectator has caused a stir in the world of graphic novels (‘comic books’ to the uninitiated). He notes that two excellent comics, Days of the Bagnold Summer by Joff Winterhart and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes by Mary M Talbot and Bryan Talbot, have been included on the shortlist for the Costa book awards. This is absurd, he says, because comic books are ‘their own thing’ and do not need a tweedy literary prize to justify their existence.

As a regular reader of graphic novels, I say ‘Amen to that, Giles.’ However, some of the brethren seemed to have missed the argument. Indeed, a moronic inferno has torn across this site. Evidence of it can be seen in the comments section below Coren’s article. Its self-regard is slightly laughable; its inability to detect irony is very odd for a graphical novel crowd; and the ease with which it finds offence where none has been given is surreal.


It’s embarrassing to see fellow travellers miss the point. Coren’s target is not the ‘comic book'; but the pompous world of the literary prize, an irrelevant world that’s trying to be a little less fusty by deigning to recognise a couple of graphic novels at long last. These paragraphs contain the logic:

‘They [comic books] are a genre of their own. And genre fiction — which is not a description of quality but of nature — usually doesn’t wash with prizes. We’ve rolled over on historical fiction because Britain doesn’t really produce anything else. But romance, crime, horror, they don’t cut it. Ian Rankin is ten times the writer Arundhati Roy or Ben Okri ever were, but we wouldn’t give him the Booker prize. We’re just too pompous, too old, too queeny.

So stop waving your comics around and pretending to be hip, you judges, and give your prizes to another tedious slog through the life of some long-dead English king.’

What’s to blame for this mildly excruciating mix-up? Is it the world of graphic novels? Is it group-think on the internet? Is it a bit of both? Or is it the fact that people don’t like Giles Coren? I’m at a loss.


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  • rndtechnologies786

    Good blog.

  • Alex Johnston

    “I read nothing but novels until I was about 14. But then I grew up, and did not really need them any more. I continued to read the truly excellent novels, like the ones that have been cited this week as ‘worthy of comparison’ with actual books, such as The Monk, Melmoth the Wanderer, The Castle of Otranto, but these are indeed ‘only’ novels and while much ‘better’. more subtle and thought-provoking than, say, Samuel Richardson’s ‘Clarissa’ (but then so is any random tale by de Sade), they should not be thought of in the same breath as literature, nor would want to be. They are basically for children, and for gentlemen who are a bit too thick to read proper books.”

  • Guest

    Joe Marsh is right. It seems that people don’t like Giles Coren, perhaps because he writes ill-informed and badly written articles. Dylan Meconis’ definitive article “How Not To Write Comics Criticism” would have set him straight in a few minutes, although had Giles Coren read and understood it, he might well have not bothered to write his article in the first place. As Meconis points out, “Comics” are the medium, a “comic book” is a complete work written in that medium large enough that you’d need to staple it together, and a “graphic novel” is a comic large enough that it can be published as a trade paperback (the term was invented by the publishing industry as a way of selling comics). Comics are not “basically for children, and for men […] who are a bit too thick to read proper books”, and all Coren’s heavy-handed self-deprecation doesn’t make it so; but I guess he hasn’t heard of Alison Bechdel or Jill Thompson or Kate Beaton or Phoebe Gloeckner or Erika Moen or Sophie Crumb or the many, many, many other women who write or have written distinguished stuff in the medium (and those are just a small handful of the living North American ones). For Giles Coren, comics are, as far as I can tell, DC Comics’ Vertigo output of the late 1980s/early 1990s, and not much else. He talks about comics like somebody presuming to talk about all world cinema but who’s only seen the films of David Lynch, and who even then regards them as something of a guilty pleasure.

    I think it’s ridiculous to award a Booker Prize to a comic, for the sole reason that it would be like awarding an Oscar to a play. The Booker, tattered though its reputation may be, is for that niche interest, literary fiction. Interventions like Giles Coren’s betray more about their own writer’s unconscious biases than they help the medium gain the respect that it deserves. In the meantime, it’s a basic requirement for a journalist writing about anything to know something more than the bare minimum about the subject.

  • A.J.Smith

    “Moronic inferno”? You wish. Unfortunately 95 percent of the posts against Coren’s piece have taken pains to argue their points eloquently and fairly. Meanwhile the sole defender of the piece in comments is an obvious troll, prone to such even-tempered and inarguable articulations as “Most comic books creators are such imbecile pussies (and cunts).” What yourself and Coren haven’t realised is that his article, in ignorantly discussing an unimportant matter, unintentionally highlighted a far more worryingly misinformed and galvanisingly mistaken view of comics which it’s author isn’t even aware of. No one’s interested in discussing the trifling conscious content of Coren’s piece, but in the bigger issues he unintentionally raises in his outdated and small view of comics.
    Jack, Giles: please trust me on this. You are both very very wrong on this one. If you respect yourselves as professionals, you both need to take the time to understand the issue and properly listen to and engage with the arguments against.

  • edlancey

    Giles Coren ? I thought he died when The Times started charging…

  • Akco

    In defence of? You realise you are writing on the internet don’t you? That allowing people to voice their opinions directly towards an article and its author means that will discover much more quickly which articles are contrived crap then, lets say for fun, if it was a newspaper where the effort to write in outweighs its value. Phew that sentence was long and tedious but then again i am not a paid writer of the independent so no one would really care unless this was the internet…

  • MaxSceptic

    I skipped the article (something I rarely do in the Speccie).

    I find Coren junior (like his sister) to be faint and annoying shadows of their mildly talented father.

    It’s bad enough that he clutters up The Times. Why give him more space?

  • Joe Marsh

    It’s funny, I was wondering how Coren’s article could even have been posted, it is so ill-informed, and now another writer on this site is actually defending it despite the back-lash from people who, on the whole, seem to be a lot better informed than Giles Coren on the subject.

    The idea that people “don’t get” the article is nonsense and insulting; I get it. It’s supposed to be a hilarious and wacky rebuke to the literary institution. It just isn’t funny. Sorry if that offends you in some way Jack, but his use of irony falls flat. Not being funny, in itself, isn’t offensive; this is The Spectator after all. However, the article is simply factually incorrect. Regardless of what people think of the term graphic novel, or the idea of comics receiving literary prizes, certain facts appear to be ignored by Coren which deserve to be highlighted, as it shows poor journalism and complete ignorance:

    A) Comics are not a genre. Comics is a medium. You would not say “the genre of films”. People can write comics about any subject they like, and have, and continue to do so.

    B) Comics are for everyone, and are read by a wide range of people, not just dumb men and children. To imply otherwise is ignorant and sexist.

    C) Coren, of all people, does not speak for the world of comics. No single person does. And to say “we don’t want your literary prizes, recognition, etc.” to make a point, ironic or not, is pretty irritating.

    As to some of the other points made, Coren shows a great degree of close-mindedness (for example, implying that comics are exclusively an American form – and using Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore as examples of this I might add, both British). He is entitled to that opinion, even if it is a pretty stupid one. However, it is disturbing to see a bunch of non-facts defended as “irony”, and when people complain about it say “you morons just don’t get our humour, haw haw haw”.

  • Tony Lee

    Jack, let me make it simple for you.

    For a start, many of the people reading Coren’s incredibly patronising and insulting piece DO understand that he’s poking fun at the pompous world of the literary prize. I think you’ll find that most people involved with comics consider literary prizes as amusing distractions from the real world.

    I can’t comment for everyone, but I can comment for myself. And before I do, let me ensure to you that I’m not some illiterate firestarter of the aforementioned ‘moronic inferno’, but am in fact a #1 New York Times Bestselling List writer of ‘comic books’, among other things. So as you can see Jack, I might have an idea of what I’m talking about here.

    The problem isn’t the literary prize, it’s the arrogant assumption that Coren believes, no, states seemingly as fact that comics are

    a) for kids

    b) for men (yes, men, really, men) who are a bit too thick to read proper books.

    That’s it. No women are allowed to read these, for that is against the Gospel of Coren. And no man can read these books if they’re not that dim, for the Coren will smite them.

    Really? You really see no issue with that?

    I write comic books. And yes, in the popular domain they’re called Graphic Novels. Not because we oh, so desperately want to be like ‘real’ novels like some kind of paperprint Pinnochio, but because they JUST ARE. Someone called them that one day. It stuck. Usually I call original stories that aren’t from collected issues ‘Graphic Novels’, and ones that are reprints of comics ‘Collected Trade Paperbacks’. But that’s just me. Currently, three of my ‘Graphic Novels’ are optioned for film and television. Of those, only ONE of them is aimed at ‘children’. The other two are aimed at mature readers. Not kids. Oh, and also a lot of the readers? They’re girls. You understand what girls are, right? Because I don’t think Giles does.

    Jack, you claim you’re a comic reader, and so I find it embarrassing to see fellow readers like YOU miss the point so entirely. I don’t care about awards. WE don’t care about awards. We’re just sick of people in the mainstream media pigeonholing us into ‘oh they’re for kids’ or ‘oh, dumb people read those’. That’s bullshit and you know it. Give one of these ‘too thick to read comic books’ WATCHMEN by Alan Moore. You’re telling me that they’ll understand it? Coren thinks so. It’s a comic. They’re too thick for books, so a comic is perfect for them.

    Really? They’ll understand it? Hell, even I don’t understand half of it. And by that I mean there are storytelling nuances, affects within the narrative that express a sub-level of story that progress throughout the structure in a non lineal fashion, thus both emphasising certain points on a subliminal level while enhancing character action, leading to a satisfying resolution.

    But what am I saying. It’s just a comic book. It’s for kids.

    Grown ups read comics. So do females. They read quite a lot of them, actually. You do yourself, Jack. And you fit at least one of these criteria.

    THAT’S why comic fans are annoyed.

    • salieri

      If you really mean to disclaim illiteracy, it would be wiser not to say “let me ensure to you”, and perhaps to spell Pinocchio correctly. Your post also proves the point of the article by missing it entirely.

      • A.J.Smith

        A couple of cheap shots about spelling and grammar in Mr Lees post do nothing to change that it is well argued, and your ill thought out response does nothing to engage with the very valid points he discusses. He doesn’t “miss the point”, he illuminates the patronizing and dated attitudes behind Coren’s “defence” of comics. No one cares about the award or Coren’s overcooked “satire” directed at industry strawmen. What they are annoyed by is the abominably poor comprehension about the nature of comics Coren betrays in doing so.

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