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From letters rejecting Art Spiegelman’s Maus, sent by editors at publishing houses to his agent in 1983. MetaMaus, a collection of interviews and documents about the development and publication of the book, is out this month from Pantheon. The two volumes of Maus became the first comic to win the Pulitzer Prize and have sold more than three million copies.

I must admit I’ve had a real battle with myself over Maus. I enjoyed the novel-in-comic-form and got involved enough in the story to read it through to the end. But I’m sure you realize the difficulty of publishing this one—a novel about the Holocaust in comic-book form? You can imagine the response I’ve gotten from the sales department. No matter how many editors I can get to be curious about this unusual creation, I can’t see how to advance the thing into bookstores. This is not to say that we haven’t done sad books; our recent A Parting Gift was about dying children, and I don’t know what could be sadder than that.

We’ve tried awfully hard to see our way into publishing Maus and have failed. The vision is terrific, and the voice, the characterization— especially, of course, of father and son. But it lacks one twist. Once one becomes accustomed to the characters having been done in animal visage, then the book becomes simply a Holocaust tale, albeit an unusually moving one. In my rough view, something more needed to be done with the animal device—some linkage needed to be made. It isn’t enough, somehow, to give the people animal faces; it needs to be carried one step further.

Thank you for letting me see Maus. The idea behind it is brilliant, but it never, for me, quite gets on track. The general tone of the narration is more like that of a situation comedy than seems right for the book.

I think a younger-reader group could be attracted by the graphicness—perhaps high school kids who would not sit down and read The Murderers Among Us might pick up Maus. But what would be in that case a strength—its being a “cartoon”— becomes a weakness when trying to attract the interest of many of those whose chief concern is the Holocaust. The contrast between the seriousness of the subject and the apparent frivolity that “a cartoon with Jews as mice and Nazis as cats” inspires is so great that I had in several cases to talk for five minutes just to convince someone to even read the book. I believe to overcome this you would have to enlist the support of well-respected individuals in many fields—get strong quotes and endorsements from a variety of people (not “cartoon people”).

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October 2011

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