Novels, like any works of art, are prone to negative criticism and, if they push the boundaries enough, can even get censored or banned. As the saying goes, however, any press is good press, and even heavily criticised and banned books have gone on to become some of the most popular works of all time.
We’ve rounded up 20 books that were part of some major controversies when they were released, and even continue to be discussed critically today.
“Manifesto of the Communist Party” by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (1848)
A work that described the possibilities and benefits of a socialist society, “The Communist Manifesto” (previously “Manifesto of the Communist Party”) was banned and censored by capitalist nations for being too radical and critical.
At its initial release, however, it had little impact. Rather, over the years its ideas became widely accepted and by 1950, nearly half the world’s population lived under Marxist governments, according to History.com.
The book was prohibited by several countries, including Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany, according to “Banned books: informal notes on some books banned for various reasons at various times and in various places,” by Anne Haight.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1852)
An anti-slavery novel published during the time of legalised slavery in the US, the book sparked fierce debate and is often cited as one of the catalysts towards a mindset change in America leading up to the Civil War.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” sold 300,000 copies in 1852 alone, and eventually sold millions more, in over 40 languages, becoming the most popular book in the world, second to the Bible.
The reception of the book from African-Americans, however, is somewhat debated.
African American responses to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin have included deliberate engagement with and spirited rejections of the text, as well as deliberate and nuanced efforts to yoke and unyoke the text from racial matters.
“On the Origin of Species” by Charles Darwin (1859)
Including breakthroughs in Darwin’s study of biology and evolution, the findings were deemed as ideas against the teachings of the Church.
According to History.com, the book sold out completely with scientists praising it but orthodox Christians condemning it as heresy.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain (1885)
This novel by Twain detailed the lives of people living along the Mississippi River and has been banned and criticised for its casual use of the N-word and its inclusion of racial stereotypes.
Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 teacher in residence wrote “Perhaps the most controversial aspect ofHuckleberry Finn is Twain’s use of racially charged language.“
Huckleberry Finn was first removed from a library in 1885, just after it was released in the US and has been debated since.
“Brave New World” by Aldous Huxley (1932)
In a massive critique of utopias and drug use that explored whether or not ignorance is truly bliss, Huxley’s “Brave New World” was ranked among the top 10 books that most Americans want banned for the following reasons: “insensitivity, nudity, racism, religious viewpoint, sexually explicit.”
“Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller (1934)
“Tropic of Cancer” challenged the laws on pornography in America in the ’60s. Released in France and banned from being imported to the US, Miller’s book went to the Supreme Court when Grove Press published it in the US in 1964. The Supreme Court ruled in favour of Grove Press, declaring the book non-obscene.
“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck (1937)
“Of Mice and Men” is one of Steinbeck’s most famous novels, centering around two ranch workers living in California during The Great Depression.
The American Library Association (ALA) cited that “Of Mice and Men” has been banned from various schools across the country for allegedly “promoting euthanasia,” containing offensive language, and “condoning racial slurs.”
“The Second Sex” by Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
A study of the treatment of women throughout history, “The Second Sex” ushered in the second wave of feminist thinking, criticised by literary and science scholars. According to the New York Times, as of 2010, it was one of the Vatican’s “Prohibited Books.”
“The Catcher in the Rye” by J.D. Salinger (1951)
A story full of teen angst and rebellion for its main character Holden Caulfield, the book has been banned by high schools in the US for its promotion of drinking, promiscuity, and rebelliousness. John Lennon’s killer, Mark Chapman, purchased a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” the same day that he assassinated the former Beatles member.
According to Rutherford.org, after murdering Lennon, Chapman planned to hold up a copy of “The Catcher in the Rye” and shout, “I am Holden Caulfield, the catcher in the rye of the present generation.”
“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding (1954)
Not featuring a giant king of flies, this novel about a group of stranded boys following an aeroplane crash on a deserted island was controversial due to its statements on human nature.
It has been banned or challenged by many schools across the country, according to the ALA.
“Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov (1955)
One of the most controversial books of all time, “Lolita” is the story of a middle-aged man who becomes obsessed with a 12-year-old girl. Even more, he not only engages in sexual activity with her but becomes her stepfather as well. According to the ALA, the book was banned in France, Argentina, and England until 1959, New Zealand until 1960, and South Africa until 1982.
“The Chocolate War” by Robert Cormier (1974)
A group of Catholic school students form a secret society to bully and control a non-conforming new student in “The Chocolate War,” and censorship controversies dominated the release due to its themes of enforcement of cultural norms and use of vulgar language.
According to Banned Library, the book was removed from libraries as recently as 2007.
“Sophie’s Choice” by William Styron (1979)
A story about three people who live in a boarding house in Brooklyn, NY, Styron’s story received controversy for including a non-Jewish survivor of the Holocaust and sexual themes.
“The Satanic Verses” by Salman Rushdie (1988)
Rushdie’s fourth novel, “The Satanic Verses” centres around Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, and was accused by Muslims as being blasphemous and a mockery of their faith. The novel put Rushie under “fatwa,” in 1989 which is a call for death by the Ayatollah, the former supreme leader of Iran, reported BBC.
“Heather Has Two Mommies” by Leslea Newman and illustrator Diana Souza (1989)
A children’s picture book about a girl raised by a same-sex couple, the story about Heather’s two mums was controversial in schools for its LGBTQ-inclusionary characters. The picture book is now celebrated by the community for promoting positive images of same-sex couples for children.
“American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis (1991)
Centering around an unstable business who becomes a serial killer, the disturbing novel, later depicted in a film in 2000 starring Christian Bale, had trouble even finding a publisher in the US when Simon & Schuster pulled out. According to ABC News, the book has to be plastic-wrapped and not sold to anyone under the age of eighteen in Australia. “American Psycho” was also criticised by Bale’s stepmother and feminist activist Gloria Steinem, for portraying violence towards women.
Tammy Bruce, 28, coordinator of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organisation of Women said, “‘American Psycho’ ” is the most misogynistic communication we have ever come across,” Bruce tells listeners on the hot-line tape. “The book is… in effect, a how-to novel on the torture and dismemberment of women…,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” by Stephen Chbosky (1999)
A coming-of-age story revolving around an introverted teenager coming out of his shell, the book includes the character discovering his sexuality, using drugs, exploring mental health, depression, suicide, and dealing with his past of being molested as a child.
The book is constantly banned from school reading lists and is often displayed in the adult section in bookstores instead of the young adult section.
“The Da Vinci Code” by Dan Brown (2003)
A book that combines alternate history with a murder mystery, “The Da Vinci Code” involves the bloodline of Jesus Christ and Mary Magdalene as one of its central plot points and has been denounced by many Christian denominations.
According to the Telegraph, when the “Da Vinci” film came out, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Vatican’s secretary of state, said: “Boycotting this film is the least we can do. The book and the film are a potpourri of nonsense, a phantasmagorical cocktail of inventions.”
“The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie (2007)
Focusing on a young Native American boy living on a reservation in Washington, Alexie’s first young adult novel dealt with alcohol addiction, violence, and racial slurs and has been contested on school reading lists every year.
Alexie recently slammed education authorities for wanting to “control debate and limit the imagination” after his novel was pulled from the curriculum in Idaho schools, reported the Guardian.
“Fifty Shades of Grey” by E.L. James (2011)
The suspenseful, erotic romance novel took the country by storm, detailing a sexual relationship that incorporates BDSM techniques and sex toys. Due to the book’s overtly-sexual nature, the book has been criticised and full of controversy ever since its release, especially following a series and film adaptation.
In fact, The Independent reported that the “Fifty Shades of Grey” London movie premiere was picketed by domestic violence protesters.
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