Freedom to Read Week: why we fight for the right to read

I’m quoting from an article that ran last February in the Queen’s University paper. The Library Communications Manager for Staufer Library, I’m guessing, had this to say about the need for events that highlight the issues surrounding censorship.

“Sometimes the authors are tackling difficult social issues and they’re trying to raise awareness,” she said, adding that one reason for censorship is the language they use within characters’ dialogue that readers find offensive. An prime example is the racist language used by some characters in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Smith said.

“What people are offended by is exactly the point the authors are trying to make,” she said. “They’re trying to shed light on those issues.”

I don’t have the books anymore, but I used to collect Lynn Johnston’s For Better or for Worse series. She made headlines in 1993 for daring to make a character gay. She was the first to do such a thing in a syndicated comic strip and she knew Lawrence’s coming out was going to cause a stir. Her editor, Lee Salem, sent warning letters to every paper that ran her strip to warn them of the upcoming four week storyline and gave them the option to opt out if they didn’t want it. Some chose to run other strips and perhaps more would have, except people didn’t read their mail so never got advance notice of the storyline. The first strip dropped into all those newspapers and then the shit hit the switchboards as call after call of complaint rolled in. And then it was letters.

At first, it seemed as though the response was mostly negative. Letters (that appeared to have been written in haste and rage) accused, threatened, cursed, and damned. Many, quoting elaborate passages from the Bible, included threatening and unprintable messages. “Curious thing,” I thought to myself, “that these people felt they were worthy to sit in judgment of others.” Some letters came as organized protests (many from people who, you could tell, had never read For Better or For Worse). Some came from people, who had been violated as children and equated homosexuality with pedophiles and thought I was in support of something that had destroyed their lives. The opposing points of view were varied, definite, and strong.

Nineteen papers, the majority American, wound up canceling their subscription to her comic. One Memphis paper lost a thousand subscribers in a day over it. Positive response was late coming, but come it did, and Lynn donated all the letters she received to her local sociology department

where they are proving to be an intimate and invaluable insight into this side of our human nature.

I learned a great deal when we ran the Lawrence story. I learned that the comics page is a powerful communicator. I learned that people read our work and care about what we say. We all look forward every day to that one page in the paper where the small truths lie, hoping for a laugh, or a little sarcasm, or a punch line that will ease the burden just a bit. I learned that our work is taken seriously, and despite the reduction in numbers and size, the comics matter a great deal. Those of us who produce these panels have a responsibility to ourselves, our syndicates, our publishers, and our audience to use this space with conscience and with care.

I believe I did that with this story.

I believe it made a difference.

My syndicate and many editors allowed me to take a risk… and yes, without question, it was the right thing to do! The complete series of “Lawrence’s Story” is available in There Goes My Baby!”

For many people, a book or a comic might be the only way they’ll be able to explore an issue that matters to them. They might not have family support or friends they trust enough. Books that deal with tough issues have to be around. They have to be available because they can help people. If you don’t want to read it, don’t. But at least let the book be around for somebody else.

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2 Responses to Freedom to Read Week: why we fight for the right to read

  1. Leah says:

    I REALLY liked this. Just want to add, Feb 2011 was the first time the Archie comics had a gay character in it’s over 50 year history.

  2. 1minionsopinion says:

    Seriously? I haven’t read an Archie comic in years. Did they add the character as part of the regular crew or was it a one-off story that featured a gay character?

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