"I didn't expect to open the book and see that graphic material within. I expected Batman and Robin, not pornography."As an avid reader I initially recognize the student's shock at opening a novel and being confronted with something unexpected. Where my own feelings completely depart from her's is in her following statement:
'At least you get a warning on the books. At most I would like the books eradicated from the system. I don't want them taught anymore. I don't want anyone else to have to read this garbage.'I am a literature student myself and the idea of using a word such as 'eradicate' when it comes to literature of any kind is incredibly insensitive. (To be honest, the word 'eradicate' should never be used on anything except weeds in your garden.) Also, the strength of literature lies exactly in its ability to shock and surprise its readers into a growing understanding and awareness. Besides this, literature normally never comes with a warning label. The blurb of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover doesn't necessarily mention the nudity and female empowerment inside, just as the cover of Nabokov's Lolita never prepares you for the actual horror of his words.
What made the arguments even more shocking, in my opinion, was the texts upon which she was basing them. The four graphic novels which offended her were the following:
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel,
- Y: The Last Man, Vol. 1 by Brian Vaughan,
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi,
- The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman.
Neil Gaiman is a very popular author whose writing is both complex and fun to read, whether it is expressed in novel-form or graphically. Alison Bechdel's Fun Home was praised when released in 2006 and Bechdel herself came up with the Bechdel Test, which is still used to test films' gender inequality. Satrapi's graphic novel draws attention to a whole range of feminist issues in a country which the mainstream Western audience knows hardly anything of. Brian Vaughan has been a very successful screenwriter and his graphic novels have been praised by many. The purpose of studying literature lies in opening up your own cultural horizon and explore how literature and culture have changed over time. I read Persepolis when I was fifteen and it remains my favourite graphic novel and one of my favourite literary texts of all time. Satrapi's story is fascinating and it really opened my eyes towards the possibility of the graphic novel. The student's comments come across as rather uninformed for someone who wants to study English literature.
Many of the books we now consider classics were not received positively in their own time. The previously mentioned Lady Chatterley's Lover is a prime example. When an uncensored edition was released in 1960, Penguin was faced with an obscenity trial due to its frequent use of the word 'fuck'. It was judged 'not guilty' when the literary merit of the book was "proven" and this led to greater freedom for publishers and authors. Books which break the conventional social norms, which bring taboo topics out into the open and confront readers with what they'd rather forget are important. They form milestones in the development of literature and the four graphic novels above are a part of the growth of "mainstream literature" to come to accept different mediums of writing. Just because graphic novels make visual what is written down in novels doesn't make the latter cleaner or less obscene.
The graphic novel is a part of this because it allows for stories to be told both visually and narratively at the same time. To equate 'graphic novel' with 'comic' and therefore with 'Batman and Robin' is to simplify two genres and mash them together. The popular culture dialogue around comics and graphic novels is still very much dominated by the idea of nerd-culture, which means that the depth to which these mediums can go are not even considered. Aside from this it is a very collaborative genre, with writers and illustrators working together for extended periods of time. At times either two roles are also handed over to other artists, showing how fluid literature and story-telling can be.
Crafton Hill College has agreed to add warnings to these graphic novels saying they contain graphic content and there may potentially even be discussion on whether to ban the sale of these on campus, since it is partly populated by minors apparently. Personally I don't believe any college or university should start this kind of censorship since they are the places which should be opening people's minds. Literature is the safest way to confront yourself with the harsh realities of the world and our sensibilities should not stand in the way of that learning process. I'll finish this post with Ryan Bartlett's words. He is the professor responsible for the course and its syllabus and reading list and he responded to the complaint as follows:
“I chose several highly acclaimed, award-winning graphic novels in my English 250 course not because they are purportedly racy but because each speaks to the struggles of the human condition. ... As Faulkner states, ‘The only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself.’ The same may be said about reading literature. The characters in the chosen graphic novels are all struggling with issues of morality, self discovery, heart break, etc. The course in question has also been supported by the faculty, administration and approved by the board.”All quotes in this post come from the Redlands Daily Facts article by Sandra Emerson.