Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Monday, March 3, 2008


I read with great interest Katherine Elsewhere's blog-entry:


In this essay Ms. Elsewhere seeks to come to terms with some of the problems in the comics-medium's tendency to lump together everything that isn't a superhero feature under the heading of "art comics." In part, she mentions the absurdity of labelling things like BONE and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES as "art comics," and alludes to some of the difficulties inherent in determining what is or isn't intended to be "art" in its conception.

I will attempt to further complicate the matter by suggesting that a judicious application (and maybe re-interpretation) of Roland Barthes' terms, "the readerly" and "the writerly," might be better than the current terms, "mainstream comics" and "art comics."

Here's a web-accessible interpretation of Barthes' concept, from Judith Mayne's JUMP CUT article, "S/Z and Film Criticism," copyright JUMP CUT 2004 and found at:


'The type of analysis pursued in S/Z focuses on this difference as multiplicity and plurality. Barthes does not assume meaning but addresses himself rather to the possibilities of meanings. On this count he distinguishes between the “readerly” and the “writerly.” Barthes’ own point of reference, Balzac, in many ways serves as a casebook example of the “readerly.” Balzac’s writing style is discourse which does not seek really to challenge the reader but to rather present the reader with a world that is coherent, well-ordered, and already meaningful. The “writerly” text, however, does not assume the meaningfulness and coherence of discourse but rather challenges it. In so doing, the writerly text challenges the reader as well, shaking his or her assumptions and conventions about literature and about one’s very judgment of reality in the day-to-day world. Twentieth century literature abounds in examples of the “writerly.” For example, the new novel which took hold in France in the 1950s, presented readers not with well told, easily consumable events, but with fragments, flashes of perception, and treatises on the very possibility of writing. In fact, Barthes was one of the major critical defenders of this new art.
The “readerly” and the “writerly” in some ways then parallel the distinction between “classical” and “modernist” literature. Barthes, however, makes a special contribution to critical theory in that he is concerned not only with different types of texts, but also with different ways of reading. The “writerly” submerges itself in that difference of the text. It is discourse in dynamic flux, calling upon the reader to produce rather than to passively consume. In contrast to the fluidity of the writerly, the “readerly,” or classic text, plunges the reader
“into a kind of idleness—he [sic] is intransitive ... reading is nothing more than a referendum.” (p. 4) '

Now, I don't subscribe to all of Barthes' formulations, and in fact I could see the need for a kind of "middle ground" between these extremes. But as long as one keeps in mind that they *are* extremes, Barthes' terms could be helpful. As far as I can tell, BONE works pretty much on the same "readerly" level as FANTASTIC FOUR, if one is looking for a discourse that is "coherent, orderly and already meaningful," at least in contradistinction to the sort of work that qualifies (or appears to qualify) as "discourse in dynamic flux," where the work calls attention to the way it can be read on different levels. This is not to say that every work that attempts to take on these "writerly" characteristics is automatically fraught with meaning, or that the "readerly" works are necessarily as circumscribed as their usual readers expect them to be (remember, S/Z is about taking a "readerly" work by Balzac and transforming it according to "writerly" reading-strategies).

At a time when comics-fans can hardly go into a DM store without stepping on a superhero book, one should remember that In The Beginning superheroes were merely one genre among many-- and nearly all of these generic works of early comics, including those of comic strips, assumed a "readerly" strategy of entertainment. If superheroes ever did recede as they did in the late 40s, and were replaced by other genres, most of these would almost certainly take the "readerly" approach that Barthes condemns as largely passive. I don't agree with him in this condemnation, but I do agree that most literature will assume a readerly form because that's what most readers will purchase. "Writerly" texts are always in a minority, though on occasion a few of them may get boosted to prominence by extrinsic factors (Nabokov's LOLITA attaining best-seller status because a lot of buyers thought it would be a good dirty book instead of "literature.") There's also that "middle ground" of which I spoke earlier, where it's possible for a work to satisfy audiences that want some mixture of readerly and writerly strategies at once, as might be evident in some of the more outre Shakespeare plays.

I'll close with the observation that the above is largely a sketch of how these terms might be used, not a fully-developed schema


Katherine said...

Hmm, interesting. I must refresh my Barthes knowledge, because it hadn't occurred to me to apply this concept to comics, although now that you've brought it up it seems obvious.

But now I find myself frustrated, because there's a way of creating comics that's similarly challenging but couldn't really be described as "writerly" because it's done on the visual level. Like the French comic I reviewed recently, Faire Semblant C'est Mentir, which is stunning, and does invite the kind of active reading Barthes talks about, but it's not "writerly"; "painterly", maybe. Now there's a project: adapt concepts from literary criticism to be applied to comics so that the useful aspects of the litcrit concepts are carried over while honouring the uniqueness of the medium.

Anyway. This is a thought-provoking post which has given me the urge to track down S/Z and finally read it for real.

Incidentally, my surname is Farmar, not "Elsewhere". :)

Gene Phillips said...

Good point about the difficulty of adapting Barthes' terms to comics. I've read one study by John Fiske that tries to do as much with the television medium-- I think the title's TELEVISION CULTURE-- but even he had to play with the categories somewhat.

I remember another film studies guy-- maybe Gerald Mast-- brought up a formal notion he called "conviction," having to do with how much conviction an audience-member invests in a given work. This concept might be useful in my breaking with Barthes' notion that the "readerly" reader is merely going along with some accepted meaning. From my POV this "passive" reader is simply allowing himself to be caught up in the emotional situations depicted in the work, as opposed to analyzing them from outside, which is closer to Barthes' "writerly" posture. It does seem to me that there is some decision, however subliminal, on the part of the viewer as to what he will or won't invest his "conviction," or else everyone would like all genres, from westerns to soap operas, pretty much equally.

Thanks for your response.