OK, well, just how graphic IS it?

I hadn’t paid much attention to the foofooraw over “gay-themed” books at the College of Charleston and USC Upstate, but something I saw at the top of this morning’s story did give me pause:

The College of Charleston assigned students to read “Fun Home,” a graphic memoir about the author’s struggle with family and sexual orientation. The University of South Carolina Upstate assigned “Out Loud: The Best of Rainbow Radio,” about being gay in the South…

Hold on — graphic? How graphic? I hadn’t seen the word, “graphic” before.

At this point, I supposed I could channel Woody Allen in “Sleeper” and offer to go off and study the material in detail and give you a full report later. But let’s just discuss it in the abstract first.

In this story, critics of the reading lists are couching their objections in terms of objecting to “pornography” at public institutions. Which seems to me a legitimate objection, if you’re one of the people expected to appropriate money for it. That is, if it is pornography. Having not yet conducted that in-depth study, I can’t say.

But if it is, I wonder — with all the fantastic literature that most undergraduates will never get around to reading in their entire lives, why does the curriculum need to have anything in it that a news story would matter-of-factly describe as “graphic.” It’s not like these kids don’t have access to porn websites. In what way is graphic material of any sort providing them with knowledge they can’t get without paying college tuition?

I tried to think of anything that I was assigned to read in school that was “graphic,” back in the licentious early ’70s, the days of “Deep Throat” and Plato’s Retreat.

The best I could come up with was Rabbit, Run by John Updike. I vaguely recall one dispiriting passage describing an adulterous liaison engaged in by Harry Angstrom. I don’t think anyone would call it “graphic.” It probably wouldn’t earn an “R” rating today (although the sequel, Rabbit Redux, which I read after college, certainly would have). It wasn’t nearly as prurient as God’s Little Acre, say.Caldwell172-GodsLittleAcre-frontCover

We read it because Updike was supposedly one of the great fiction writers of his generation. In that same class, we also read Crime and Punishment. Needless to say, the latter made a much deeper impression on me. I found Updike mostly… depressing.

I don’t feel deprived for not having studied anything “graphic” in school.

Thoughts about this? I mean, set aside the “gay-themed” bit that makes headlines. Let’s say we’re talking pure hetero. Is there any need for public institutions to use “graphic” reading material outside of a public health class?

My own gut reaction is to say “no,” although I supposed I could also without straining myself mount an argument that Erskine Caldwell‘s books are at least culturally relevant to South Carolina.

Such a discussion won’t lead to a resolution of this particular controversy, but I find the question intriguing…

11 thoughts on “OK, well, just how graphic IS it?

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    In looking for an image to go with this, I found something interesting. Did you know Tina Louise, better known for “Gilligan’s Island,” starred in a film version of “God’s Little Acre?” Well, she did.

    So I suppose this topic IS fairly educational… 🙂

  2. scout

    I don’t think they mean ‘graphic’ in the sense you are using it.

    It’s like a graphic novel – graphic in the sense that it has pictures, like a comic strip book, essentially – except that it’s serious. They study it because it is a new genre, I think.

    Here is a link about the genre:


    At least that is the impression I get.

  3. Pam

    The term “graphic novel” or “graphic memoir” simply refers, as Scout said, to a comic book format. Think Persepolis, for example. Alison Bechdel, Fun Home’s author, was the drafter of a marvelous quasi-underground comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For. Fun Home is a very smart and literate memoir, full of allusions to Joyce’s Ulysses, to Camus, etc. Many–most–college freshman might struggle with it (or would at least miss a lot).

    It’s well worth reading.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I really need to read Ulysses. People warn me away from it, but I liked Dubliners (“The Dead” is my favorite sort-of-short story) and “Portrait of the Artist.” Perhaps I should take the plunge…

  4. Norm Ivey

    Scout is correct. “Graphic novel” is a type of book, but I’m not sure it’s technically a genre like “mystery” or “adventure” or “biography”. They grew out of comic books and were very popular with adolescents a few years back–mostly manga and anime stuff, but they cover all kinds of topics now. You can preview the book at Amazon. I read a few pages. Seems pretty dark.

  5. Brad Warthen

    Of course, I know what a graphic novel is. Like “Walking Dead.” In fact, I once considered writing one — about Mark Sanford.

    In this context, I thought they meant it the other way. Since there were quotes about pornography, that seemed to make sense. And “graphic” appeared in the same sentence as “sexual.”

    But graphic in the sense of graphic NOVEL makes more sense. So I feel dumb.

    Since Emily Litella isn’t here, I’ll have to say it myself: Never mind.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Although, if the “graphic memoir” contains material that is graphic in the other sense — and these senators seem to believe that it does — then my original question stands.

      I wonder why no one has done “God’s Little Acre” as a graphic novel, in the Persepolis sense.

      I realize it wouldn’t be original, but there’s precedent for that. After all, I grew up reading Classics Illustrated…

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      I followed Norm’s link and read a few pages. I don’t think I’d get into it. Just page after page about this kid’s Dad being weird. It doesn’t quite get to “dark” in the pages I read, but there’s definitely a penumbra.

      It’s interesting that it uses the allusion to Daedalus, and I had just mentioned “Portrait of the Artist” above. Weird…

  6. Barry

    Didn’t pay the topic too much attention. I don’t really have a problem with the legislature cutting funding for these books- or anything else. They hand out the money. That’s their job.

    Gay themes of various kinds are all the rage now in the media world and in college circles. In a given week of listening to NPR programming, you’ll hear 3-4 shows devote either an entire hour- or at least several segments to a specific homosexual topic of some sort.

    One would get the impression, with the amount of time and attention given to this subject, that 50%+ of the population is homosexual.


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