The Fusion of Speculative Art and Literature


Recently, my library featured a small display of steampunk novels. On the shelf along with Jules Verne and other classic writers sat a rather thick hardback titled The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a story about an orphan boy living hidden in a train station. Though he keeps all the station clocks in repair, he must turn to thievery for food and basic necessities as well as for the parts needed to repair a mysterious automaton discovered by his now-deceased father. The automaton has come to mean everything to him, as it represents his last link to his father, so he draws on all his training in clock work mechanics, determined to restore it to working order.

Though I knew nothing about the book or author on first sight, I was intrigued when I skimmed the pages, because the book blended drawings and text in an unusual way. Though a YA novel, it relied on illustrations to tell much of the tale (thus the 500+ pages), and the story text alternated with page after page of pictures, each image advancing the plot.

Although the concept of telling a story through a blend of pictures and words was intriguing, in this case, the heavy reliance on illustrations distanced me from the characters to the point I only read a small part of the book. In picture books for children, this means of storytelling works, but when trying to tell a story larger in scope, this method has several distinct weaknesses–pacing and characterization foremost. Yet despite my mixed feelings about the book, it won a Caldecott Medal and a film version will soon release. So clearly, it worked for some people.

Perhaps as a writer, I’m too fond of words to enjoy a story carried along by other means. I’m sure it could be handled in a way that enhances the vividness of the world without sacrificing character depth and intimacy, yet I’m fond of envisioning an unfolding tale in my own imagination.

What about you? Would you read a book that fused art and literature in such a fashion? Or if you’ve already read Hugo Cabret or a similar book, what did you think of the experience?


  • Kessie
    November 14, 2011 - 3:15 pm · Reply

    Wow, so the book was kind of a fusion of a graphic novel and a regular novel? Weird!

    I know what you mean about the pictures vs. the imagination. I read the Artemis Fowl books as they came out. Then when the first graphic novel came out, I picked that up, too. But I was disappointed. I didn’t see the characters like that in my head. Especially Butler, the butler/bodyguard.

    So yeah. Graphic novels have their place, but give me a book any day of the week.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 15, 2011 - 4:25 pm · Reply

      It was very unusual. It somewhat resembled a graphic novel in that it combined of images and text, but they were separated, with the text on some pages and images standing alone on others. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The author certainly gets points for creativity, at least!

      I’ll always reach for a book first also. Even film versions of books rarely display characters as I imagined them. When I first saw the Fellowship of the Ring, I actually laughed when Elrond first showed up–he was so opposite everything I envisioned. 🙂

  • Emily
    November 14, 2011 - 6:11 pm · Reply

    How interesting… I’d never heard of that before! While I think it’s quite an intruiging idea, I’m not sure I could enjoy it either. I think the mix of words and pictures would almost be a distraction from the plot, at least for me. What a creative concept though!

    Although I’m not sure I’d enjoy the quantity of pictures included in such a book, I do sometimes enjoy it when books have a few pictures now and then. That’s definitely not a nessessity for me, though… I quite like books without pictures. They allow for so much more scope for the imagination. 🙂

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 15, 2011 - 4:35 pm · Reply

      It was an intriguing idea, which is what compelled me to pick it up and bring it home. Unfortunately, in the end, the execution of the idea didn’t work for me. However, if I saw a different book using the same concept, I’d probably give it a try.

      I agree that some authors add occasional illustrations quite well. Andrew Peterson comes to mind. His pictures mesh well with the way I view the story, and when they happen along once in a while, they usually add something. 🙂

      • Emily
        November 17, 2011 - 6:25 pm · Reply

        That’s interesting that while you didn’t love the way the book turned out, you’d still try another of the same idea. I think that I may not enjoy the results of that sort of book myself, but I’d still be willing to give it a try. You never really know with that sort of thing unless you try it out.

        That’s funny; Andrew Peterson was in my mind as a posted that comment. The way the illustrations in his books meshed with his writing was, indeed, quite good. I thoroughly enjoyed both his books and their pictures.

        While I often enjoy illustrations now and again in books, I have an odd little quirk. I tend not to like it when the beginning of each chapter in a book has a picture, and yet nowhere else in the book are there illustrations. I’d usually just as soon there be no pictures at all. I’m not entirely sure why this is, though. I guess I’m just unusual like that. 🙂

        • Sarah Sawyer
          November 18, 2011 - 12:27 pm · Reply

          In this case, if another author tried something similar, I know there’s a chance I could like it better (though my guess is this would never be a preferred method of storytelling for me). It’s just what you said–you never really know unless you try!

          That’s interesting about your illustration preferences. I don’t have a strong preference regarding illustrations or lack thereof or even where they are placed in a story…but if they are used, I want them to match up with the way I envision the story, or I find it distracting. All readers have their quirks, I suppose. 🙂

  • Jenni Noordhoek
    November 14, 2011 - 6:33 pm · Reply

    I saw this book for the first time at Walmart the other day, and absolutely loved the idea. But I haven’t gotten it from the library yet to give it a good read.

    I’m a fairly visual person, and love the graphic arts; but also love the written word. A blended book quite appeals to me.

    (Oh, wow, your library had a display of steampunk novels?!? I can hardly find any!)

    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 15, 2011 - 4:37 pm · Reply

      It seems like the book has been a widespread success, judging from the awards, positive reviews, and upcoming film. So my guess is that if graphic arts inspire you, this mix might work well. I’d be interested to hear what you think, if you do give it a read. 🙂

      And yes, I was quite pleasantly surprised when I walked in and saw steampunk prominently displayed. I think the genre is beginning to gain more prominence, which can only be good for speculative fiction as a whole!

  • Jamie T
    November 17, 2011 - 9:00 pm · Reply

    That is so different!!!! I’ve never heard of such a thing, but less seen one. I would agree that I would think it wouldn’t be great for characterization. As a young writer, I’ve learned from others that among the greatest parts of telling stories is having strong characters; if they characters fail, the story will probably fail too! It’s a good lesson to learn.

    If I see the book any where, I will have to pick it up and look through it!


    • Sarah Sawyer
      November 18, 2011 - 12:30 pm · Reply

      It was entirely unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Perhaps the closest thing would be a graphic novel, but even that has a distinctly different presentation. I agree with you on characterization. If I don’t connect with the people in the story, the plot events fail to captivate me. Of course, creating characters that engage reader emotions is easier said than done!

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