Bechdel’s memoir of growing up in rural Pennsylvania with a gay, closeted father, and her own coming out as a lesbian was one of the works that prompted the MacArthur Foundation to give the artist a “genius grant.” MacArthur officials wrote, “With storytelling that is striking for its conceptual depth and complexity in structure as well as for the deft use of allusion and reference, Bechdel is changing our notions of the contemporary memoir and expanding the expressive potential of the graphic form.”
But some students were offended by the book and declined to read it. “I feel as if I would have to compromise my personal Christian moral beliefs to read it,” freshman Brian Grasso wrote on the class Facebook page, according to the Chronicle. He did not immediately return messages requesting comment on Monday.
Other freshmen told the Chronicle that the graphic depiction of sexuality made them uncomfortable, feeling it crossed the line from literary to pornographic material.
Many others, however, defended the selection, admiring the book and saying it could open people’s minds to new ideas and important cultural themes.
Every year there is some debate about the summer reading selection, said Duke spokesman Michael Schoenfeld — just as university officials hope.
He explained that a committee of students and staff choose a book each year with feedback from others at Duke, a selection that is not required reading but, as at many universities, intended as a unifying experience that will stimulate conversation.
“‘Fun Home’ was ultimately chosen because it is a unique and moving book that transcends genres and explores issues that students are likely to confront,” he said. “It is also one of the most celebrated graphic novels of its generation, and the theatrical adaption won the Tony Award for Best Musical, and four others, in 2015.
“As we have every year, we were fortunate to have the author join us on campus for a lively discussion of the book during orientation week,” Schoenfeld added. “With a class of 1,750 new students from around the world, it would be impossible to find a single book that that did not challenge someone’s way of thinking. We understand and respect that, but also hope that students will begin their time at Duke with open minds and a willingness to explore new ideas, whether they agree with them or not.”
In past years, Duke freshmen have read such works as “Americanah” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; “Let the Great World Spin” by Colum McCann; “State of Wonder” by Ann Patchett; “Eating Animals” by Jonathan Safran Foer; “Everything Matters,” by Ron Currie Jr.; “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” by Junot Diaz; and “What is the What” by David Eggers.
Bechdel did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.
It’s certainly not the first time “Fun Home” has touched off controversy. Last year, for example, after the College of Charleston recommended the book to its students, the state legislature threatened to withhold funding (and the cast of the off-Broadway play based on the novel quickly brought a performance to Charleston, in response).