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Why such love for Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home? An examination of a critically lauded piece of comics literature

by  in Comic News Comment
Why such love for Alison Bechdel’s <i>Fun Home</i>?  An examination of a critically lauded piece of comics literature

Check out the pompous title of that post!  I love being all pretentious and shit.

Anyway, I wrote that I could think of five graphic novels off the top of my head that were better than Fun Home, even though I liked it a lot.  I gave you my list of the five best graphic novels of the year, but I still feel like I should say something about Alison Bechdel’s book and why it’s getting such accolades.  Because, you know, it’s fun to do.  So let’s go under the fold!

First of all, I want to reiterate that I enjoyed Fun Home immensely.  It’s a gripping story of self-discovery, family secrets, the nature of death, and even an attempt to overcome provincialism but finding out it’s a lot more difficult than you might think.  It’s funny, sad, suspenseful, and heartfelt – all the elements of good fiction, even though it’s “autobiographical” (I put those in quotes because I’m always suspicious of autobiographies – I barely remember what I did last week, yet autobiographies are always so damned specific - “On August 14th the year I was 11, I remember that I stubbed my toe looking for a slot-head screwdriver while admiring the way the flag flapped in the wind that was particularly strong that morning” – you know the drill!).  Bechdel does a wonderful job contrasting her own voyage of coming out with her father’s reluctance to, and the two journeys make for a wonderful reading experience, with just the right amount of ambiguity in the narrative.  Bechdel also keeps us on our toes, as she doubles back through time often, peeling back layers and layers of her relationship with her father and how it informs the present.  It’s a remarkable achievement.

But.  You knew it was coming!  But.  Does it deserve the praise heaped upon it?  Possibly.  I think you should read it.  It’s a very good book.  But.  I think it’s a bit overrated, and I want to understand why.  Time magazine, after all, chose it as the best book of the year.  Not the best comic book/graphic novel, mind you, but the best book overall.  Now, while I love the fact that Time has lumped a comic book in with all the other books, something I wish people would do more often, the fact is that Fun Home wasn’t even the best of graphic literature this year.  That, of course, was Infinite Crisis #6, the issue in which Superboy died.  You know it’s true!  Oh, I’m kidding.  I still have a brain, after all.

I do have some reasons why I think Fun Home is overrated.  Of course I do!  And I’m going to share them with you, and then we can have a rational discussion about it.  That’s why we’re all here, right?  For rational discussions?  So here, from least to most controversial, is why Fun Home is praised so much, and why perhaps it doesn’t deserve it as much as other books.

1. It was published by Houghton Mifflin.  Houghton Mifflin, of course, is a “major” publishing company.  This will not guarantee that your book gets praised, but it will guarantee that more people read it.  The people from Time magazine might not have actually read American Born Chinese, which is better than Fun Home.  As much as I appreciate First Second and AiT/Planet Lar for publishing good graphic literature, I doubt if their reach is as long or wide as Houghton Mifflin’s is.  I could be wrong.

2. It’s autobiographical.  As some of you may recall, the very mention of the word “autobiographical” is enough to make me break out in hives.  Along with “coming of age,” those two things do not really bode well for a book.  It’s one of the reasons I’ve avoided Blankets for so long (please, no comments about how I should read Blankets – I know, I know, and maybe I even will some day!).  The last time I read an autobiographical comic, there was some unpleasantness around here.  The fact that this is an autobiography doesn’t hurt it, but for me, it doesn’t help it.  If you read carefully, not a whole hell of a lot happens in this book.  Yes, I know, stupid me, wishing for a plot and not appreciating the nuances of the characterization, but still – Alison Bechdel’s life is more interesting than many lives, but it’s still not all that interesting.  For some reason, however, exposing one’s life to the world is ridiculously trendy these days – witness the power of “reality” television, and yes I know it’s unfair to compare the two, but I’m going to do it anyway – and this makes people pay more attention to Bechdel’s work.  If you tell people that Pride of Baghdad – another book that’s better than Fun Home – is about talking lions, they think it’s “fantasy” and ignore it.  But if they hear that this book is “real,” they’re more interested.  I don’t know why.  Maybe I just prefer fiction.

3. It’s pretentious.  Yes, I wrote pretentious.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that!  Perhaps “pretentious” is the wrong word.  How about “erudite”?  Anyway, Bechdel loads the book with literary references, basing a lot of the narrative upon other works.  James Joyce’s Ulysses seeps onto page after page, as does Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, as well as some Camus.  She also brings up lots of Greek myths, and although the idea of Daedalus and Icarus is somewhat important to the book, it’s still pretentious.  Plus, characters in the novel are always reading specific books that, if I knew them, are probably subtle clues to what’s going on in their heads.  Now, perhaps it’s because I haven’t read Proust, Joyce (except for Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man and “The Dead”), and just a wee bit of Camus, but the constant references started to annoy me.  I don’t mind epigraphs, or even writing something that “resembles” a classic work of fiction (Ulysses, which apparently follows The Odyssey, is a prime example), but the fact that Bechdel ties so much of the narrative to these texts lessens this work, I think.  It’s as if she has to turn to fiction in order to articulate her thoughts.  Maybe that’s the way I’m supposed to read it, but then, again, there don’t have to be so many references.  But critics who read this and make it the best book of the year probably love this, because they were all forced to read Joyce and Proust in college and thought they would never get a chance to show off that they know it.  So when it comes up in Bechdel’s work, instead of thinking it’s pretentious, they nod knowingly and think about how smart they are.  But I could just be projecting.

4. It’s written and drawn by a woman.  Okay, now let’s get controversial!  This is one of the two most important reasons why Fun Home is overpraised (you know what the final one is going to be, so just bear with me).  For mainstream magazines such as Time, this might count less, but I still think it has an impact.  For comic book fans, who know that men are wildly overrepresented in the industry, the fact that Fun Home is a wonderful book written and drawn by a woman means they give it more attention.  I’m not saying this is a bad thing.  But if you’re a male comic book fan, you can praise several hundred creators and it becomes white noise after a while, unless that person is a true genius.  Women who are really talented and can do both aspects of comic book writing well stand out.  Women on the fringes of the medium – bloggers, sure, but also other critics – want a woman they can hold up and praise.  Okay, I have no idea what women want, but from reading women bloggers, it seems that they yearn for something that speaks to them, and most comics don’t do it.  Many comics, especially really good graphic novels, appeal to everyone – you certainly don’t have to be Chinese or male to like American Born Chinese, and you don’t have to be an Iraqi lion to like Pride of Baghdad – but too many comics, even comics written for a less-than-mainstream audience, have a tendency to be ignorant of what women go through in life.  A lot of women probably can’t relate to Alison Bechdel’s realization of her sexual orientation, but a lot of the book is about “feminine” issues, and Bechdel does it so well that I wonder if a lot of people thought it was done better than anything they’ve ever read.  Hence the overpraising.  Also, a lot of critics are men, and they too live in this weird politically correct world, so pointing out Fun Home‘s flaws might open them up to charges of misogyny.  Don’t say it couldn’t happen!

5. It’s written and drawn by a lesbian.  Ah, the crux of it all.  Not only is Fun Home the work of a woman, it’s the work of a gay woman.  It must be brilliant!  I wonder how many people went into this expecting it to be great, and when it came close, they simply wrote about their preconceived notions rather than the actual book.  Bechdel, after all, does a nice job showing how her father denied his homosexuality, and it ruined him, his marriage, and possibly his children.  She doesn’t make the same mistake, and she apparently has a much healthier life.  Yes, it’s an inspirational story.  But it’s interesting how little Bechdel seems affected by her own lesbianism.  She never exactly suffers much because she’s a lesbian.  I don’t want her to suffer, of course, but her own voyage, like a lot of the book when she’s not dealing directly with her father, lacks drama.  It’s this reason why I can’t put it at the top of my list, the lack of dramatic oomph, I suppose the word would be, but why I can believe others would put it at the top of the list.  Gay father who denies it for years?  Daughter who is also gay, but chooses to deal with it?  Artistic people, and people who judge artistic stuff, love this.  People who read these kinds of comics are, for the most part, predisposed to like Alison Bechdel’s life.  So they ignore the weak parts of the book because they don’t want to be called homophobic.  And, as I pointed out, the parts with Bechdel coming to terms with her own lesbianism is the “weakest” part of the book – it’s not bad, but less compelling than her relationship with her father, which is informed by both his secret and, for a long time, hers.  The praise of this book stems partly, I think, from a political agenda, and that’s a shame.

Everyone should read this book, because it’s definitely worth it.  I just find it interesting that it’s so praised, because everyone brings their own prejudices into reviewing something, and it would be nice if they were up front about it.  I do it too, and I hope I’m up front about it – if I’m reading something I like but recognize that others might not, I try to remember that.  Sometimes I don’t.  It seems a lot of the praise for Fun Home stems from something other than the actual text.  That doesn’t mean it’s not a moving tribute to family and an in-depth examination of what makes us who we are and how we hide ourselves away – in many different ways.  It’s a neat book.  It’s just not as great as everyone says it is.

So.  How off base am I?  Be nice!

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