Literature, with the naughty bits

Monday, June 14, 2010

Postscript: Ulysses, Or Another Reason I Won't Be Buying an iPad

Censorship of Ulysses has seemed like a non-issue for nearly a century, but the New York Times reports that a new graphic-novel treatment of the book has been bowdlerized by Apple for its release on the iPad.


I am less concerned about Ulysses--an old warhorse of the censorship battles, sturdy enough to weather this assault--than about the broader implications of Apple's policy. Female nudity was evidently one of the offending components. I can think of several excellent graphic novels that have nudity (Sandman, From Hell, Watchmen, Preacher, and the list goes on), and it's beyond dismaying that they--and most of the classics of the form--might be inaccessible to a whole group of readers.

Scott McCloud notes, in Reinventing Comics, that nudity and obscenity battles have historically been one of the most reliable ways for culture warriors to suppress and devalue graphic storytelling, and that artists will probably have to continue fighting those battles for a while. For an established classic like Ulysses, the battle is more ridiculous than anything else. But I shudder to think of the stories that aren't being written and drawn because the artists can't figure out how to get past these self-proclaimed cultural gatekeepers.

At the same time, there's a huge opportunity for the Kindle or the Nook to establish a definitive anti-censorship stance. I'd be rather delighted, I must admit, to see the iPad receive some of the same consumer backlash generated by Blockbuster's and Walmart's stealthy soft-censorship practices.

When a technology clearly aspires to become the dominant vehicle of media consumption, we must pay very close attention to what media it allows us to consume. I've quoted Ray Bradbury before about how there's more than one way to burn a book, but damned if he doesn't keep being right.