4 Masterpiece Books That Were (or Are) Extremely Controversial

Few works of literature in recent memory have generated as much controversy as Salman Rushdie’s. satanic verses. The 1988 book, which includes a chapter in which the prophet Muhammad mistakes the words of the devil for the words of God, was praised by critics but condemned by religious authorities. While Harold Bloom congratulated Rushdie on his “biggest aesthetic achievement” to date, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa calling for the writer’s death.

Rushdie was placed under police protection. More than three decades later, the writer still faces very real threats of violence, barely surviving an attempt on his life in 2022 while lecturing at the Chautauqua Institute in New York. satanic verses was banned in South Africa, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bangladesh, Somalia, Indonesia, Sudan, Malaysia and Qatar, and British and American bookstores selling copies of the book were bombed. Rushdie’s Italian and Norwegian translators survived the assassinations. His Japanese translator Hitoshi Igarashi was killed in 1991.

Not all disputes are equal. Some books like satanic versesare controversial because they touch on controversial topics. Others are controversial because they are written by conflicting authors. A book ahead of its time may be criticized at release but redeemed in the future. Conversely, a book that lives up to the standards of its time may at first be praised and then lose popularity as those standards become obsolete.

Some contradictions subside rather quickly, others last for decades, if not centuries in one form or another. While they can lead to protests and violence, arguments are not inherently bad. On the contrary, controversial books help draw attention to important social issues, including religious extremism, sexism, racism, and abuse of power. The more openly an author writes about the world or human experience, the more likely he is to upset some of his readers.

Obscenity in art

Most controversial books are considered controversial because they challenge the culture’s moral code. So it was with Henry Miller. Tropic of Cancer, about the sexual exploits of a poor expatriate living in 1930s France. The novel, which Miller completed as early as 1934, did not reach bookstores until 1961 because some segments of American society considered its language and content too explicit and obscene to be printed on paper.

With phrases like “I’m fucking you, Tanya, so that you don’t fuck. And if you are afraid of being fucked in public, I will fuck you in private (…) I will bite your clitoris and spit out two francs,” scattered throughout the text, and it is clear why. However, not everyone agreed with this assessment. For years, publishers and free speech advocates have battled a justice system that has decided that obscene passages in Tropic Cancer was indistinguishable from hardcore pornography.


Writer Salman Rushdie was stabbed for writing about the Prophet Muhammad. (Source: Alexander Baksevanis/Wikipedia)

To prove that this was not the case, the plaintiffs hired literary critics to argue that Miller’s writings, in addition to their ability to excite or shock, had artistic merit. One such critic was Donald Gutierrez, who, in a 1978 article, interpreted Tropic of Cancer as a sex comedy – low comedy, of course, but with “a stronger inner attraction than high comedy.” Thanks to this approach, one publisher eventually managed to lift the ban and claim their constitutional right to sell the book.

Legal battle around Tropic of Cancer played a critical role in expanding free speech protection in the United States, which is among the most extensive in the world. They apply not only to books, but also to other art forms such as film, music, and painting. Today, writers can not only include explicit images and graphic descriptions in their work, but also parody the original work of other authors without worrying about being prosecuted for copyright infringement.

Charlotte Bronte vs. Currer Bell

AT 21st. Along with her siblings Emily and Ann, Charlotte Brontë is considered one of the greatest writers of all time and an inspiration to the women who follow in her footsteps. But in my age – the beginning of 19thto be precise, the writings of Brontë, which include books such as Jane Eyre, willett, And Professor, caused controversy precisely because it was produced by a woman. Or, at least, so some readers began to suspect as her fame and success grew.

Living in a time when it was considered unacceptable for women to become professional writers, the Brontë sisters published their novels under masculine or gender-neutral pseudonyms. On the page, Ann became Acton Bell, Emily Ellis Bell and Charlotte: Currer Bell. The sisters embraced these alter egos because they wanted their literary works to speak for themselves and be taken seriously by critics, rather than being placed in the narrow context of their own femininity.

Unfortunately, the critical reception of Brontë’s novels has mostly been a guessing game about her personality. “Who the author might have been, I cannot guess.” —William Makepeace Thackeray of Vanity Fair once commented: “If a woman, then she knows her language better than most ladies.” Indicative of the gender bias of Victorian England, Bronte received positive reviews when critics suggested that Currer Bell was male and unfavorable when they mistook him for a woman.

Conservative art historian Elizabeth Eastlake (criticism was considered a more suitable profession for women than writing) wrote in a magazine that if Jane Eyre indeed was written by a woman, she “has long been deprived of the company of representatives of her sex.” Eastlake even went so far as to compare the protagonist’s rebellion against traditional gender roles to Chartism, the working-class reform movement that swept England in the mid-1800s, and other socialist uprisings taking place in continental Europe.

many faces Huck Finn

As already mentioned, a literary work rarely remains controversial for a long period of time, because the norms and values ​​that underlie disputes are constantly evolving. If disagreements persist, they tend to develop at a comparable pace. A good example of this process can be found in Mark Twain’s book. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnin which a white boy named Huck and a runaway slave named Jim travel across the Mississippi.

Since its publication in 1884 Huck Finn angered readers of later time periods for various reasons. Early criticism of the book was directed at Twain’s use of language, especially his misspelling of words to convey dialect and level of education. Twain thought this added character, but many readers felt that the books should be written in proper English. Similarly, the New York Public Library banned Huck Finn from the children’s reading room, because Huck scratched when he itched.

huck finn

Many black critics find Twain’s portrayal of Jim distasteful. (Source: public domain / Wikipedia)

Since the civil rights movement, the number of articles on the book’s racial content has expanded dramatically, and opinions continue to differ. Some black critics argue that Twain’s portrayal of blacks was progressive for the time, while others insist that it is insensitive. As Frederick Woodard and Donnara McCann write in an essay, “While Jim can legitimately be regarded as a model of kindness, generosity, and humility, he is characterized by a lack of the equally necessary intelligence to back up our claims of his humanity.”

In the end, the controversy can be useful not only to society, but also to the author. When Mark Twain was informed of the New York Public Library’s decision to ban The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he was more delighted than enraged, noting that this news would only boost his sales. He was right; contrary to expectations Huck Finn became far more popular than Twain’s other, less controversial book, Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

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