What Do You Mean You're Studying Hybrid Novels?

Since starting a PhD in Children’s Literature I’ve often found myself having to explain what I am doing to people who are only half interested in situations that vary from polite dinner parties to crowded and raucous clubs. Initially, I made the mistake of assuming that everybody had heard of the term ‘hybrid novel’ (by which I mean, novels in which graphic devices like photographs, drawings and experimental typography are integrated into the written text) Looking back now (after three whole months of experience!) I don’t find it surprising that nobody knew what I was talking about, what I do still find strange is that there does not appear to be much said about hybrid novels in reviewed academic journals and literary criticism.

I found out that to date the term ‘hybrid novel’ has been used sporadically to refer to novels that break with conventions by including scripts, photographs and semi-autobiographical narratives (Thompson, 1993; Harris, 2001; Hout, 2008; Jannarone, 2011). This loose use of the term in academic criticism is reflected in the definition given by Christin Galster in the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory (2005):

Hybrid novels such as the ones listed combine, transform, and subvert the conventions of several narrative sub-genres; break down the boundaries between fiction, poetry, and drama; import non-literary discourses and text types; and employ narrative strategies that strive to imitate the organizing principles of painting, music, and film. (p. 227)

If I accepted this definition of the term then it seemed possible to argue that most ground-breaking novels could be called hybrid novels. So I cast my net and began to explore the wider reaches of the Internet. Here I found a much more interesting definition by the visual design researcher Zoë Sadokierski’s PhD Thesis, Visual Writing: A Critique of Graphic Devices in Hybrid Novels from a Visual Communication Design Perspective (2010). In it she states that:

Hybrid novels [are] novels in which graphic devices like photographs, drawings and experimental typography are integrated into the written text. Within hybrid novels, word and image combine to create a text that is neither purely written nor purely visual. (ibid., p. ix)

This definition was both stricter and more radical than Galster’s (2005) because it proposed that hybrid novels were not simply a mix of different kinds of text but of different modes of communication (written and visual).

From previous experience and hours spent in bookshops I knew that there were many well-known examples of hybrid novels for both adults and young people that range from Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Kinney, 2007) to The Savage (Almond, 2009), My Name is Mina (ibid., 2012), The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Selznick, 2007), Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Safron Foer, 2005) and The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen (Sterne, 1762). Various libraries in the USA and some websites had already begun to compile recommendation lists of hybrid novels but I couldn’t find any studies of the genre. In a world where images are replacing words as the dominant mode of expression (Kress, 1998; Shlain, 1998; Seward, 1997; Mitchell, 2005) it is perhaps not surprising to see novels adapting to the current climate. After all, as the Russian literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin’s (1981) states “the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, between literature and non-literature and so forth are not laid up in heaven” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 33) and the novel has always been known to appropriate different discourses due to its close proximity to the “inconclusive present” (Bakhtin, 1981, p. 27).

This style of novel may offer the reader opportunities to move beyond a narrow understanding of meaning that is tied to language. Like picturebooks they are able to use both words and pictures to open up new ways of seeing, thinking and talking that invite us to examine the limitations of any one mode of expression. By integrating visual elements into the text it requires us to change our reading habits and take into equal consideration “not just the meaning of images, but their silence, their reticence, their wildness and nonsensical obduracy” (Mitchell, 2005, p. 9 – 10). Sadokierski’s thesis (2010) uses the language of Visual Design to critique and explore hybrid novels. I would like to suggest that there is also a wealth of experience to be mined in studies of picturebooks.

To what extent can we transfer the detailed analyses of word and picture interaction already developed by scholars like Maria Nikolajeva and Carole Scott (2006) and the empirical research methods employed so successfully by Morag Styles and Evelyn Arizpe (2003)?

Now, when people ask me what it is I’m studying I’ve learnt to smile, assess the situation and then launch into one of three prepared speeches that range in length from brief to complicated. All three are still very much works in progress, but then again I have three years to perfect them!

Eve Tandoi


Almond, D.            (2009) The Savage. London: Walker.
                               (2012) My Name is Mina. New York: Yearling Books.
Arizpe, E. & Styles, M. (2003) Children Reading Pictures: Interpreting Visual Texts. London: Routledge Farmer. 
Bakhtin, M. (1981) “Epic and the Novel” in The Dialogical Imagination: Four Essays. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Galster, C. (2005) “Hybrid Genres” in D. Herman, M. Jahn & M.L. Ryan (eds) Routledge Encyclopaedia of Narrative Theory. London: Routledge.

Harris, S. (2001) ‘The Return of the Dead: Memory and Photography in W.G. Sebald’s “Die Ausgewanderten”’ in The German Quarterly. 74(4) pp. 379 – 391.

Hout, S.C. (2008) ‘The Tears of Trauma: memories of Home, War and Exile in Rahib Alameddine’s “I, the Divine”’ in World Literature Today. 82(5) pp. 58 – 62.

Jannarone, K. (2011) ‘“L’amour Chez Jarry”: Rupture, Ridicule and Theatre’ in New Theatre Quarterly. 27 (4) pp. 329 – 340.

Kinney, J. (2007) Diary of a Wimpy Kid. London: Puffin.

Kress, G.          (1998) “Visual and Verbal Modes of Representation in Electronically Mediated Communication: the Potentials of New Forms of Text” in I. Snyder & M. Joyce (eds) Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era. London: Routledge. pp. 53 – 79.
                        (2000) “Design and Transformation: New Theories of Meaning” in B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (eds) Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning and Design of Social Futures. New York: Routledge.

Mitchell, W.J.T. (2005) What do Pictures Want: the Lives and Loves of Images. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Nikolajeva, M. & Scott, C. (2001) How Picturebooks Work. London: Garland Publishing.

Sadokierski, Z. (2010) Visual Writing: A Critique of Graphic Devices in Hybrid Novels from a Visual Communication Design Perspective. PhD Thesis. University of Technology Sydney, Australia.

Seward, A.M.B. (1997) Visual Intelligence. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Shlain, L. (1998) The Alphabet versus the Goddess: The Conflict Between Word and Image. New York: Penguin.

Thompson, D. (1993) ‘Villains, Victims and Veterans: Buchheim’s “Das Boot” and the Problem of the Hybrid Novel – Memoir or History in Twentieth Century Literature. 39(1) pp. 59 – 78.

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