Salman Rushdie once said, “What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” Of course, Rushdie would know all about that; he has written a book that caused offence, and was subsequently banned. Not only that, it disrupted his life to an extraordinary extent because he was afraid he would be killed for having had the temerity to write his views.
We are looking at more controversial books this week, although none of them came close to enduring what Rushdie did. They did face struggles and censure though, and undeservedly so, in my opinion. There are some ways of avoiding controversy, such as pen names, although this doesn’t seem to work in the long run.
At least it did not for Anne Desclos, a French journalist who wrote The Story of O under the pseudonym Pauline Reage. Written in 1954, the story was a gift for her long-time lover Jean Paulhan, a fan of the writings of the Marquis de Sade (whom I covered in this column last week). The novel details a submissive subject and her dominant lovers; at the outset the novel knew incredible success, winning a top French literary prize and praise for its writer. However, it was slapped with obscenity charges and endured a publicity ban for many years.
Of course, no novel could ever face the sort of criticism that Lolita faced. Written by Vladimir Nabokov and published in 1955, the focus of the novel is on forbidden sexuality. The middle-aged protagonist — and a highly unreliable narrator — is sexually obsessed with his young stepdaughter Dolores, whom he nicknames Lolita. Although it won immense praise from Nabokov’s peers, including Graham Greene who termed the novel ‘one of the three best books of the year’, others pushed back, including the New York Times who termed the book repulsive and disgusting. The novel was banned in several countries for many years. It proved to be popular in the United States though, and sold 100,000 copies in its first month in the market.
And for the final book in my list of controversial books — although this list is not exhaustive — I would like to turn the focus on Henry Miller’s The Tropic of Cancer, which was a turning point for ‘the free speech we now take granted in literature’, according to the New York Times Book Review. It focuses on the sexual adventures (and misadventures) of a young American writer based in Paris in the 1930s, during the height of Bohemian culture. The main character keeps interesting company, all of which is described in graphic detail.
The American edition was published in 1961 by Grove Press, and more than 60 lawsuits were filed against all the booksellers who carried the book. Publisher Barney Rossett was determined to legally assist every bookseller who faced persecution, and they won a thumping victory. This was considered a turning point for writers, and for free speech.