Audrey Niffenegger's Raven Girl: the return of the illustrated book?

Alex Hern finds that sometimes it's better to let someone else illustrate your words.

Raven Girl
Audrey Niffenegger
Jonathan Cape, 80pp, £16.99, 2 May 2013

A recent New Yorker piece by Sam Sacks made an impassioned call to Bring Back The Illustrated Book!, in the vein, apparently, of Bleak House, Vanity Fair, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. "The interplay between art and text is rich with possibilities that few fiction writers have even begun to explore," he wrote, sparking a "hmmm" from fiction writer and practised explorer of the interplay between art and text Warren Ellis (author of the novels Crooked Little Vein and Gun Machine and the graphic novels Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Global Frequency, Freakangels, RED, and many more).

The fact is that the illustrated novel never went away; it just moved from being filed in "Fiction A-Z" to "Graphic Novels" in Waterstones.

Obviously there remains a difference between a graphic novel as most would understand it and an "illustrated novel". There is a language of comics — speech balloons, thought bubbles, and the like — which is absent from illustrations like George Cruikshank's art in Oliver Twist.

Nonetheless, authors and artists of comics seem far more willing to drop the conventions of their form than prose writers do. Jeff Lemire turned two issues of his post-apocalyptic Sweet Tooth on their side (literally), and scripted them in the style of a children's book; artist Becky Cloonan illustrated Bram Stoker's Dracula; and even in the safe and predictable world of superhero comics, Grant Morrison managed to release an issue of Batman which read like an illustrated short story (unfortunately, the computerised style of John Van Fleet, the illustrator, was universally reviled).

Now, however, Audrey Niffenegger is coming at the cross-over from the other direction. The author, most famous for her debut novel The Time Traveller's Wife, has released a new novella, Raven Girl. Niffenegger, an accomplished draughtswoman, has also illustrated the book, which she describes as a "new fairytale". Naturally, containing both words and pictures, it ended up on my desk.

Initially, I was disappointed. The book is "illustrated" in the most literal sense: Niffeneger draws what is being described in the text. There is no drive to use the images to expand on, or even better, juxtapose with, the prose. A passage of a man watching his Raven-wife fly into the air is illustrated with a picture of a man watching a raven fly into the air. Raven girl at a lecture in university is illustrated with a picture of a girl in a lecture theatre. And so on.

Niffeneger is, bizarrely, on the back foot by virtue of having written the actual book. She won't elaborate on her own words, because she knows exactly what she meant; yet she was clearly writing prose which was later illustrated, rather than writing prose to be illustrated. The art is understated, pretty and simple; but that just plays into her habits, and without the drive to fill in background detail that you see in — to pick one of the most perfectly illustrated books ever — John Tenniel’s illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, one is left wondering what the point is.

Despite that, the illustrations do substantially change the feel of the book, by removing much of the ambiguity. Her attempt to write a new fairy tale involves many of the hallmarks of the old — interactions between people and animals, fantastical events, kings and queens — but seeing that this isn't allegorical, that the raven really is just a raven and the girl just a girl, makes it seem less magical, and more weird.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images
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Why aren’t there more scientists in the National Portrait Gallery?

If the National Portrait Gallery celebrates the best of British achievements, there’s a vast area that is being overlooked.

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) in London is my favourite place to visit in the city, even though I’m a mere scientist, or uncultured philistine as the gallery’s curators might consider me. Much of my research involves “omics”. We have “genomics” and “transcriptomics" to describe the science of sequencing genomes. “Proteomics” characterises our proteins and “metabolomics” measures refers to the small chemical “metabolites” from which we’re composed. The “ome” suffix has come to represent the supposed depiction of systems in their totality. We once studied genes, but now we can sequence whole genomes. The totality of scientific literature is the “bibliome”. The NPG purports to hang portraits of everyone who is anyone; a sort of “National Portraitome”.

However, I am increasingly struck by the subjective view of who is on display. Some areas of British life get better coverage than others. Kings and queens are there; Prime ministers, authors, actors, artists and playwrights too. But where are the scientists? Those individuals who have underpinned so much of all we do in the modern world. Their lack of representation is disappointing, to say the least. A small room on the ground floor purports to represent contemporary science. An imposing portrait of Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel laureate and current president of the world’s most prestigious science academy (the Royal Society (RS)) dominates the room. Opposite him is a smaller picture of Nurse’s predecessor at the RS, astronomer Martin Rees. James Dyson (the vacuum cleaner chap), James Lovelock (an environmental scientist) and Susan Greenfield all have some scientific credentials. A couple of businessmen are included in the room (like scientists, these people aren’t artists, actors, playwrights or authors). There is also one of artist Mark Quinn’s grotesque blood-filled heads. Some scientists do study blood of course.

Where are our other recent Nobel winners? Where are the directors of the great research institutes, funding bodies, universities and beyond? Does the nation really revere its artists, playwrights and politicians so much more than its scientists? I couldn’t find a picture of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the key role played by DNA in genetics. Blur, however, are there. “Parklife” is certainly a jaunty little song, but surely knowing about DNA has contributed at least as much to British life.

Returning to my “omics” analogy, the gallery itself is actually more like what’s called the “transcriptome”. Genes in DNA are transcribed into RNA copies when they are turned on, or “expressed”. Every cell in our body has the same DNA, but each differs because different genes are expressed in different cell types. Only a fraction of the NPG’s collection ends up “expressed” on its walls at any one time. The entire collection is, however, available online. This allows better insight into the relative value placed upon the arts and sciences. The good news is that Francis Crick has 10 portraits in the collection – considerably more than Blur. Better still, Sir Alexander Fleming, the Scottish discoverer of antibiotics has 20 likenesses, two more than Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond. I had suspected the latter might do better. After all, antibiotics have only saved hundreds of millions of lives, while Bond saved us all when he took out Dr No.

To get a broader view, I looked at British winners of a Nobel Prize since 1990, of which there have been 27. Three of these were for literature, another three each for economics and physics, a couple for peace, five for chemistry and 11 for physiology or medicine. The writers Doris Lessing, Harold Pinter and V S Naipaul respectively have 16, 19 and five portraits in the collection. A majority of the scientist winners have no portrait at all. In fact there are just 16 likenesses for the 24 non-literature winners, compared to 40 for the three writers. Albeit of dubious statistical power, this small survey suggests a brilliant writer is around 20 times more likely to be recognised in the NPG than a brilliant scientist. William Golding (1983) was the last British winner of a Nobel for literature prior to the 90s. His eight likenesses compare to just two for Cesar Milstein who won the prize for physiology or medicine a year later in 1984. Milstein invented a process to create monoclonal antibodies, which today serve as a significant proportion of all new medicines and generate over £50bn in revenue each year. Surely Milstein deserves more than a quarter of the recognition (in terms of portraits held in the gallery) bestowed upon Golding for his oeuvre, marvellous as it was.

C P Snow famously crystallised the dichotomy between science and the humanities in his 1959 Rede lecture on “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution” (which was based on an article first published in the New Statesman in 1956). He attacked the British establishment for entrenching a cultural preference for the humanities above science, a schism he saw growing from the roots of Victorian scientific expansion. The gallery supports Snow’s view. Room 18, my favourite, “Art, Invention and Thought: the Romantics” covers that turbulent period covering the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here we find the groundbreaking astronomer (and harpsichordist) William Herschel, the inventor of vaccination Dr Edward Jenner, the pioneering chemist Humphrey Davy and the physicist who came up with the first credible depiction of an atom, John Dalton. Opposite Jenner (who also composed poetry) is the portrait of another medically trained sitter, John Keats, who actually swapped medicine for poetry. Wordsworth, Coleridge, Burns, Blake, Clare, Shelley and Byron, all adorn the walls here. The great Mary Shelly has a space too. She wrote Frankenstein after listening to Davy’s famous lectures on electricity. The early nineteenth century saw the arts and science united in trying to explain the universe.

Room 27, the richest collection of scientists in the building, then brings us the Victorians. The scientists sit alone. Darwin takes pride of place, flanked by his “bull dog” Thomas Huxley. Other giants of Victorian science and invention are present, such as Charles Lyell, Richard Owen, Brunel, Stephenson, Lister and Glasgow’s Lord Kelvin. Inevitably the expansion of science and understanding of the world at this time drove a cultural divide. It’s less clear, however, why the British establishment grasped the humanities to the bosom of its cultural life, whilst shunning science. But as the gallery portrays today, it is a tradition that has stuck. However, surely the NPG however has an opportunity to influence change. All it needs to do is put some more scientists on its walls.