Why aren’t novels illustrated?

illustration collage

This may seem like a ridiculous question. But calm down everyone… clearly, the words in a novel should paint a far more vivid picture than any illustration ever could. That’s exactly the point-of-view that I’d normally argue: it’s sacrilege to even consider putting pictures in novels! Novels harness the power of words, they’re not picture books… yadda yadda…

But… would the right sort of illustration enhance some novels?

Of course, illustrators can be great artists – we can all recognise that. But we’re only allowed to appreciate illustrations if they’re in childrens’ books or in comics.

The closest we tend to come to an illustrated novel nowadays is in books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, in which illustration is used intelligently to help us gain insight in to the mind of the protagonist/narrator: a map of a street, a hypnotic pattern from some fabric, a scrawled doodle. Maybe this is the furthest that an author can push illustration without the risk of producing something that’s seen as more of a novelty than a serious novel.


Both of those books were critically acclaimed and hugely popular – I love them – it can work when done well. And they aren’t alone: The Giro Playboy by Michael Smith was called “A British beat classic for the 21st century” by Esquire, and The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall created images out of the words themselves. What I’m interested in is whether a more ‘straight’ form of illustration can still be effective – or is it just completely unnecessary in a novel?

Is there a middle ground for the right book? Perhaps a hybrid of a traditional novel and a graphic novel? Whaddya think?

Any suggestions of books that have actually done this successfully?

The brilliant illustrations at the head of this post are from:
Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
Takes From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan
The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller


31 thoughts on “Why aren’t novels illustrated?

  1. Charles Yallowitz

    I think it depends on the book. Some books can have occasional illustrations of key scenes like a fantasy or sci-fi book. Yet there are some books that would gain very little from an illustration. I have trouble seeing romances using a lot of illustration, but I don’t really know much about the genre.

    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Yep, I agree. It does all depend on the book. The thing that stimulated this thinking was that I actually thought that the novel I’m working on would work well with the occasional ‘graphic novel’ style illustration. Which is strange since I’m usually all about the words!

      1. beautifulorange Post author

        Yeah, with me I was just thinking about how well it could work if there was an illustrative style that matched the style of verse that I’m writing in. Unfortunately, I’m lacking in the drawing department too!

  2. writemybrainsout

    I’m always excited to see a map inside the cover, and enjoy getting to refer back to it while reading. Didn’t love Lord of the Rings (don’t shoot me), but I was all about that map!

  3. FictionFan

    Silver – Andrew Motion’s follow-up to Treasure Island – had a few really great illustrations. They really enhanced the book. The words obviously are the main thing, but if ‘real’ books want to compete with e-books, it’s things like the cover art and illustrations that’ll make the difference. I recently read an e version of Ken Kalfus’ Equilateral (and loved it), but I’m lusting after the hardback because the design, cover art and diagrams are so gorgeous.

  4. madamebibilophile

    I have a hardback edition of Michel Faber’s novella The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps that has some atmospheric photographs throughout as illustrations, the mix was really effective. Still not quite a hybrid though. I think a hybrid could work well. High quality hybrid novels that are beautiful objects in themselves could be a way to keep up sales of paper books?

    1. beautifulorange Post author

      I was thinking the same… although I wonder if anything can stem the tide of paper book decline. I’m a fan of Faber but haven’t read The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps but will have to check it out. Thanks for the comment.

  5. ckckred

    Interesting post. I like when books have illustrations. A great example would be The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I don’t remember which edition has it, but one shows drawings of the characters.

    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Ah yeah, Huck Finn. I completely forgot about that one… it’s kind of a classic example of how books used to be illustrated. I definitely think there’s a place for a modern version where the illustrations are like in a graphic novel and so still really credible – for the right book.

  6. sanclementejedi

    hmmm my copy of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam has tons of illustrations but that is the only one I can think of off the top of my head.

    Most of the books I am currently reading have tons of illustrations but that is due to the fact I am reading to a four year-old. 😉

    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Ha. But I love some of the illustrations in kids books! I only have a god-son at the moment but I always buy him books with cool illustrations (well, that and Thomas the Tank Engine).

  7. kelihasablog

    I agree, the mind paints a much more vivid picture than anyone could probably pain. I do think however, (only my opinion) that a well chosen cover that is pertinent to the story can help some of the visuals out there like me.. LOL 😀

  8. Jessica

    I love “Where the Wild Things Are.” The pictures are so great. The movie’s pretty good, too. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series comes to mind. But, really, my feelings are that most novels don’t need pictures. The mind, directed by the author’s words, is better than any picture could do.

  9. Eric Kovach

    Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Breakfast of Champions” has quite a few illustrations drawn by the novelist himself. Most of them are quite funny.

  10. Michelle Proulx

    Maps are always useful for figuring out where everything is located. One book that I felt had a really great set of illustrations was A Wrinkle in Time. One of the characters was trying to explain multidimensional theory, and they had these great illustrations of ants and threads and whatnot that really clarified the concept. So yes, I’m a fan of illustrations — so long as they’re useful!

    1. beautifulorange Post author

      Thanks for commenting Michelle. I think this post probably needed a bit more thinking through… but I’ve had some great comments. I haven’t heard of A Wrinkle In Time… will have to look it up…

  11. lyriquediscorde

    As someone who loves to pair visual art and photography with my writing, I would love to see many of the books I love illustrated. Yes, writing illustrates in our minds, but I would also love the option/chance to see many written works artistically interpreted, even if was just a scant few within the actual novel.

  12. Things I Think.

    I think the more fantastical the book the more detrimental images are. The curious incident worked I think because it was so mundane, so the drawings added to the procedural, clinical worldview the protagonist had. If it had been done on something like Harry Potter, it would have destroyed the individual interpretation that each reader creates, and lessened the immersion. I’ve been reminding myself to buy the Raw Shark Texts for weeks. I’m tempted to do that book-a-day challenge too.


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