Whether it’s to join a debate, exercise those First Amendment rights, or get a piece of the scandal, everyone loves – to hate, potentially – a controversial book.
In chronological order, here are fifteen of the most controversial Western books from across the spectrum of scandal. We hope you find yourself intrigued, enlightened, enraged, or some combination thereof.
1. Open and Smut Case
Who: John Cleland
What: Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure (a.k.a. Fanny Hill)
Why: Explicit sexuality
How: Considered the first erotic novel in the English language, Fanny Hill tells the story of a country girl forced into prostitution in eighteenth-century London. Cleland wrote the book while finishing a sentence in debtors’ prison only to be re-arrested for obscenity after the book’s release.
The novel has been banned, confiscated, and smuggled in countries around the world throughout its 260-year history. Its publication was illegal in the US until a 1966 Supreme Court case ruled that it had redeeming social importance as a work of literature. Since then, no American court has been successful in ruling that a book is obscene.
Who: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels
What: The Communist Manifesto
Why: Challenging capitalism
How: As the book that effectively split the political world in half for the better part of a century, The Communist Manifesto needs little introduction. Marx and Engels’s criticism of (and proposed alternative to) capitalism is more theoretical than practical, barely addressing the real-world possibilities behind the ideology.
Nevertheless, the book set off a chain of events that eventually led to the implementation of communism in four continents and several close calls for global nuclear war. Lest we overlook the tragic irony, the Soviet take on this German manifesto was also used to keep East Germany under lock and key for 40 years.
Who: Harriet Beecher Stowe
What: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly
How: This propagandist tale of cruelty against African-American slaves is legendary for not only stirring up abolitionist sentiment, but also really ticking off the slaveholding South.
In response to its incredible popularity – and what they claimed to be misinformation – slavery supporters began their own literary campaign, which included titles like Aunt Phillis’s Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is and Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia, and Tom Without One in Boston.
Despite the criticism that it helped cement stock characters like the mammy, the pickaninny, and the tragic mulatto into American consciousness, Stowe’s novel has had massive staying power.
Who: Mark Twain
Why: Racial stereotyping… and coarse language and behavior
How: Despite being profoundly antislavery, Huck Finn is regularly challenged as school reading for its near-constant use of the n-word. Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it is also lambasted by critics for its oversimplified black characters.
However, the controversy surrounding the book began long before these things ever raised any American eyebrows. The novel’s early detractors deemed it “the veriest trash,” insisting that it was “more suited to the slums than to intelligent, respectable people.” What, pray tell, was all the fuss about? The fact that Huck was vulgar. He “not only itched, but scratched” and “said ‘sweat’ when he should have said ‘perspiration.’ ” Egads!
Who: Charles Darwin
What: On the Origin of Species
Why: Contradicting creationism
How: Although not intended as an attack on the church, Darwin’s scientific classic is the biggest wedge to be driven between religion and science since Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres.
A spiritual man, Darwin insisted that it was “absurd to doubt that a man might be an ardent theist and an evolutionist”; however, his theory of evolution flies in the face of a literal interpretation of the Bible, making it a matter of intense debate even 150 years after the fact. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon to see children pulled out of science classes when evolution is taught – or unheard of to visit creationist museums that depict humans and dinosaurs cohabiting a not-so-distant past.
6. Body Language
Who: James Joyce
Why: Extensive descriptions of bodily processes
How: Just 37 years prior to the publication of Ulysses, America was still turning its nose up at the mention of Huck Finn’s sweat. Keeping this in mind will help you understand why Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness descriptions of blasphemy, sex, defecation, masturbation, menstruation, and drunken hallucination didn’t exactly set off a bidding war among publishers.
The first edition was famously printed by the Shakespeare and Company bookstore in Paris after serialized portions of the novel had already been declared obscene in the US. The book was then banned in the US, Great Britain, and Joyce’s home country of Ireland.
Who: J.D. Salinger
What: The Catcher in the Rye
Why: Teenage profanity, sexuality, and underachieving
How: Modern readers of this Salinger classic might be surprised by how contemporary it feels. The slang is familiar, the jokes are still funny, and the teen angst is plenty angsty.
It’s therefore no wonder that an almost 60-year-old book about an upper-middle-class kid still has shock value. Its narrator, Holden, gets kicked out of school, talks openly about sex, is liberal with the word “goddamned,” and even attempts to sleep with a prostitute.
Detractors also condemn the novel’s several uses of the f-word – apparently failing to notice Holden’s efforts to erase it from the walls of his little sister’s school. It’s not often that a book so profoundly lamenting the end of innocence is censored for its adult themes.
Who: Vladimir Nabokov
How: As told from the first-person perspective of a man who sleeps with his twelve-year-old stepdaughter, Lolita is controversial for obvious reasons.
What’s less obvious – but far creepier – is the fact that the narrator is extremely convincing in describing his good intentions and crippling remorse. First published in Paris, the novel was later banned in France, England, Argentina, and New Zealand. (You know something’s edgy when the French consider it obscene.)
Weirdly enough, when the book was published in the US in 1958, it stayed on the bestseller list for two years.
Who: William Powell
What: The Anarchist Cookbook
Why: Encouraging domestic terrorism
How: Written by a disaffected nineteen-year-old during the throes of the Vietnam War, The Anarchist Cookbook is unapologetically anti-government. It contains several do-it-yourself recipes for narcotic foods – as well as some woefully inaccurate instructions on how to build bombs.
Although very few stores carried the book to begin with, terrorist acts like the Unabomber, Oklahoma City, and Centennial Olympic Park bombings have thrown the book under a new and more dangerous light. Powell has since converted to Christianity and publicly disavowed his teenage ravings.
Who: Alice Walker
What: The Color Purple
Why: Rape, incest, homosexuality, and an unfavorable portrayal of men
How: Cutting right to the chase, The Color Purple famously opens with a graphic firsthand account of an incestuous rape. After bearing (and being separated from) her father’s children, Celie is forced into a loveless marriage where she is beaten and suffers spousal rape by her husband.
Her freedom eventually lies in having a lesbian affair with her husband’s mistress and leaving him to start her own business. For many readers, the mother/daughter/lesbian lover dynamic leaves little room for any male protagonists, which critics argue reinforces negative stereotypes about black men.
Who: Salman Rushdie
What: The Satanic Verses
Why: Irreverence toward Islam
How: In addition to other offences, Rushdie refers to the prophet Muhammad as Mahound, a derogatory, Crusader-era term, and names various prostitutes after Muhammad’s wives.
Initial backlash included rioting, bombings, and book burnings. In 1989, the Ayatollah of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie and “all those involved in its publication,” resulting in the assassination of one of the book’s translators and attacks against others.
Although Rushdie was unharmed, he spent the next nine years living in undisclosed locations under police protection, reportedly even staying at Bono’s house in Dublin from time to time. You know you’re in trouble when Bono’s letting you hide out in his mansion.
Who: Bret Easton Ellis
What: American Psycho
Why: Extremely graphic descriptions of torture, murder, mutilation, cannibalism, and more
How: Although American Psycho can be characterized as a satire of American machismo, odds are you’ll be too distracted by the detailed first-person accounts of a serial killer to really appreciate the underlying message.
After Simon and Schuster backed out of the project, Vintage Books got the publishing rights to the novel – as well as a lot of heat from feminist groups for its portrayal of violence against women. (To be fair, the narrator also kills a few men and a dog.) As with guns, spray paint, or huff-able glue, many stores require that you be 18 in order to purchase this novel.
Who: James Frey
What: A Million Little Pieces
Why: Intentionally deceptive marketing
How: Famously dubbed “A Million Little Lies,” James Frey’s so-called memoir incurred a horrible retribution after it was revealed that many of the more scandalous events in the story never actually happened.
Particularly damning was the fact that Oprah, who’d previously featured the novel in her book club (and bolstered its sales by about n-teen percent), made it her personal mission to rip Frey and his publisher into a million little pieces on national television. The media carnage and book returns that followed taught Frey one of the most important facts of American life: don’t mess with Oprah.
Who: Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell
What: And Tango Makes Three
Why: A children’s book depicting homosexuality among animals
How: According to the American Library Association, this is the fourth most challenged book of the last decade – which is no small feat for a children’s book. Based on real-life events that took place at the Central Park Zoo, it tells the story of two male penguins that successfully hatch and raise a chick named Tango.
Some people argue that it raises too many sexual questions for a children’s book; others, however, point out that it is no more sexual in nature than any heterosexual portrayal of family life. Of course, the real debate is over the political implications of homosexual parenting.
While LGBT groups see the book as an important alternative to the prevailing definition of family, some conservative and religious groups feel it is an attack on traditional moral values.
Who: J.K. Rowling
What: The Harry Potter Series
Why: Depicting witchcraft
How: Although young adult literature about teenage do-gooders can only get so controversial in the traditional sense of the word, the American Library Association lists the Harry Potter series as the most challenged books of 2000 to 2009.
The novels have been banned and burned across the globe for fear that their portrayal of magic in everyday life will encourage witchcraft among children. (Of secondary concern, it seems, is the fact that almost 40 people die over the course of Harry’s education.)