Upon further research, it seems that contemporary illustrated novels are as rare as unicorns and perhaps as highly prized. After my last post on this topic I began a more extensive online search for examples but most novels that surfaced were actually picture books, works oriented toward a young reader or were impassioned pleas by writers seeking to commission illustrators for novels in progress.
A notable exceptions, which I can add to the earlier examples, is the just released short fantasy novel The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami. Originally written in 1982 and adapted as a illustrated, stand-alone short story in 2005, this short novel was only translated into English this year by Ted Goossen and republished with Chip Kidd’s new illustrations. Note that this novel has a youthful protagonist, but I would not consider it oriented toward young readers. Could it be writers only consider illustrating a novel when there is an element of youthfulness about it?
Two articles–one from The Guardian in 2007 and one from The New Yorker in 2013 –echoed the questions I asked earlier. The authors and commenters on those pieces also decried the lack of illustrated novels and waxed enthusiastically about their love for the illustrated classics they remember reading in their youth, but no one had any rationale for why the illustrated novel is such a rare beast in contemporary fiction today.
Stumped, I asked Jacob Denno, editor of the illustrated literary magazine Popshot whether he felt the art was drawing readers and why we don’t see more illustrated novels or short story collections. The answer to the first question was a solid yes. Popshot commissions illustrations for each of its short stories, flash fiction and poems (much of it SF, I might add). Illustrations certainly help Popshot stand out in the literary magazine world, but Denno says that the quality of writing is still the ultimate test for the magazine’s success.
Denno says this about why we don’t see more illustrated novels and short story collections:
It’s certainly more labour intensive, which could be a major factor. If you removed the illustrated aspect from Popshot, it would be a much easier magazine to run. In certain instances, it also requires a rather large budget.… Also, to do it properly, it requires a fairly in-depth knowledge of the world of illustration and the practitioners within it who will be able to do the most appropriate job to the highest standard. There probably aren’t that many people who are qualified to do that. However, to me it’s quite odd that more publishers don’t use illustration to their advantage. Without doubt, one of the reasons why Popshot has managed to achieve such widespread distribution (in literary magazine terms at least) and has developed such a strong reputation is down to its illustrated aesthetic. If publishers were to jump on this bandwagon, they might notice a similar effect!
So, we have hunches, but still no convincing reasons why we don’t see more of the imagined worlds we read about. I hope, Dear Readers, your comments will help us unravel this mystery.