lit·er·a·ture [lit-er-uh-cher, -choor]
1. writings in which expression and form, in connection with ideas of permanent and universal interest, are characteristic or essential features, as poetry, novels, history, biography, and essays.
2. the entire body of writings of a specific language, period, people, etc.: the literature of England.
3. the writings dealing with a particular subject: the literature of ornithology.
4. the profession of a writer or author.
5. literary work or production.
6. any kind of printed material, as circulars, leaflets, or handbills: literature describing company products.
7. Archaic. polite learning; literary culture; appreciation of letters and books

Can a book without words be classed as literature? Going by the above definition of the word, the answer is a pretty resounding ‘no’. There is a little bit of wiggle room with definition 6 above, but even that is stretching things a bit.

Why is this even an issue? I hear you cry. Well, good question. It’s because the graphic novel, The Arrival, by Shaun Tan, has won the AU$15,000 Community Relations Commission (CRC) Literary Award for 2007. This is one of eleven awards announced as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.

The Arrival
The Arrival by Shaun Tan

CRC chairman Stepan Kerkyasharian described Tan’s novel, which illustrates the stories of migrants as they undertake journeys to other countries, as “a master work” and “Compulsive, rhythmic, heart-breaking and inspiring”. But, without words, is it literary? The argument could be made that it’s a book and therefore qualifies. But that would only really qualify it for a book award. Something that is specifically literary, even in the name of the prize itself, should surely only be awarded to something with words in it.

Interestingly enough, the fact that it’s a graphic novel without words is rather unique. I’m a huge fan of the graphic novel – Garth Ennis, graphic novelist god, is one of my all time favourite writers. But just about every graphic novel I’ve read has words in it. Sure, the words are in speech bubbles or spread across half a page in bold characters screaming THWACK! or KAPOW! but they are words nonetheless.

Anyway, Mr Tan has taken the prize and good on him. The debate surrounding his eligibility could go on for some time, but as Jim Dewar of North Gosford, a letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald, so eloquently put it:

Wordless works can now be classed as literature. To find out if a similarly liberal interpretation will apply in the art world, a couple of my letters to the editor will be entered in next year’s Archibald Prize. [That’s a portraiture prize for those that don’t know.]