“I was really lucky in that my parents definitely didn’t seem to have any kind of rules about what I couldn’t read.” With that, Neil Gaiman — CBLDF Advisory Board co-president and longtime supporter of our fight for the right to read — kicked off an excellent interview with The Guardian‘s Frances Myatt about reading, censorship, and more.
Gaiman, a bestselling author whose books and comics have been a frequent target of censors, had the advantage of having parents who didn’t restrain his voracious reading, and he seems to have suffered no ill effects. He tells Myatt:
I definitely haven’t been traumatised for life and I’m not entirely sure if the subversive element made things enjoyable. Except possibly in Chaucer and The Bible, where you’re actually discovering murder and masturbation – and you’re going “this is cool, this is subversive, because it’s the stuff they want us to read and they seem to have forgotten that it’s filled with stuff that they don’t want us to read.”
Gaiman also spoke to something that’s a bit of a refrain here at CBLDF: the reason comics are such easy targets for would-be censors:
Because they have pictures and because pictures are easy to ban; pictures can be devoid of context. It’s hard to upset people with just prose these days because you actually have to read it and you have to think about it and you have to understand it. It’s slightly easier to upset people with movies. But it’s really easy to upset them with comics and graphic novels because – just because there are pictures.
Gaiman conjured the recent controversy over Duke University’s selection of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home for an optional summer reading program. An incoming freshman, Brian Grasso, recently said that he would not be reading Fun Home “because of the graphic visual depictions of sexuality,” adding that he “would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it.” In tying this attitude to why images make comics so vulnerable to attack, Gaiman says:
Partly, I think people automatically equate pictures with things for children and partly you get the kind of nonsense that happened this week, when a student at Duke University declined publicly and noisily to read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel — and he said he probably would have been able to read it if it was a novel — but the pornographic drawings would incite lust in his heart and thus he would be sent to hell. And you’re going, “well actually, if you read the book, there is no porn in this and it’s not what you think it is and if you read it, you would learn and you would be challenged and you would go to new places and I hope that maybe you’ll read a bunch of prose and grow up a bit. Grow up enough to be allowed to read comics.”
When asked about including controversial material in his work and whether he ever intentionally did so, Gaiman discussed The Graveyard Book, which CBLDF defended against challenges earlier this year:
The Graveyard Book opens with a serial killer walking round a house, holding a knife, having just murdered three people and now looking for the baby, who he’s going to kill – and it’s probably as scary as it gets. But I tried to write it in such a way that different people reading it would get different things out of it. And was it put in to shock or provoke an effect? No! It was put in because that’s where the story has to start.
Gaiman also spoke about the ways in which different countries address and even restrain free expression and the advantages of the First Amendment, but he also acknowledges that even in a country that has a law protecting free speech, we still need to keep fighting challenges and actively supporting the right to read:
In the US, there’s a lot of attempts to ban, there’s a lot of people who do not understand the First Amendment, there’s a lot of school principals who don’t understand that the have rules about what they can and can’t have taken off the shelves in libraries and there’s people who would be very very happy to have books and ideas removed. It’s one reason why I’m so ridiculously out there and donating serious amounts of money and a fair amount of time to the various anti-censorship organisations that are fighting that kind of stuff. For me, because I came from a world of comics, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which has been out there, fighting.
Gaiman acknowledged that the United States isn’t perfect in defending free speech, citing the case of Mike Diana, whom CBLDF tried to defend from an obscenity charge, as something even more extreme than he would have seen in the UK:
You get cases more obscene than anything I know of in the UK in the US — Mike Diana in Florida, who went to trial for writing and drawing a sort of zine called Boiled Angel and his eventual conviction he was sentenced to, I think, a three year suspended sentence and a thousand hours of community service, a thousand dollar fine. He was not allowed to be within about twenty yards of anyone under the age of 18, which was rather a problem because he worked in a convenience store and if anybody who looked under the age of 18 came in, he had to leave, go in the back and have somebody else serve. He had to have psychiatric treatment at his own expense. And he was forbidden from drawing and the sheriff’s office were ordered to make 24 hour spot checks on his home, unannounced, just crash on into his little apartment to make sure he wasn’t drawing and flushing the pictures down the toilet.
But the Diana case and other attacks on free expression influenced how he supports free speech and the First Amendment:
[I]t was things like that that made me an activist. I love that the First Amendment exists and I think that it’s a terrific thing. I wish the UK had guaranteed freedom of speech — we don’t. I think we should. But it’s absolutely why I will support PEN, why I will absolutely and utterly keep being a First Amendment activist.
You can read the rest of Gaiman’s lengthy and informative interview at The Guardian website. To find out more about the challenges to Gaiman’s work, see our case studies on The Graveyard Book and Sandman. We also defended his novel Neverwhere from a challenge in New Mexico.