The most contraversial writing reveals the starkest truth, its time to read on
By Jo Davies: Literature Columnist
In a world where there seems to be no right answer to moral questions and virtue is no longer black and white, it feels more important than ever to know your own ethics inside out. But do we – and should we – expect the same of our fiction? Throughout history, writing has been where new ideas are born and old ones are challenged and humanity is forced to confront some of its deepest fears and darkest shame. With a legacy like this, it’s only natural that fiction has caused controversy, and not least some that can be charted from the beginning of the written word.
Chaucer – The Canterbury Tales
Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales may have been written 800 years ago but the themes that made it so controversial are as relevant as ever. Written at a turbulent time in British history, it uses satire and outlandish characters to make veiled criticism about a society ruled by the Church. The work has been censored for centuries for introducing diverse, and often critical, views of Christianity. His representation of characters from every walk of life was unseen in previous writing, and sheds light on the lives of marginalised and previously voiceless communities. The critique of religion, subversion of gender roles, and representation of sexuality make it one of the original bastion’s of free speech.
The Restoration Period in England began in 1660 following King Charles II’s return from exile and brought a new wave of liberated writers. They satirised Britain’s preoccupations with faith, sexual repression, and social etiquette. Among them was John Wilmot, a poet who rallied against the “spiritual authoritarianism” or Puritan England. His poetry included lyrical accounts of wildly explicit sexual encounters and criticism of royal corruption and society’s vanity. He was simultaneously revered as a visionary, and condemned as “not a great poet of any kind”, eventually being banned from court.
George Orwell – 1984, Animal Farm
Orwell’s Animal Farm caused uproar in 1945 for its allegorical commentary on the events surrounding the Russian Revolution and the historical figures involved. The book has since been condemned internationally for myriad reasons, most notably in Russia because of its criticism of leadership and communism. The author’s position as social critic came to fruition with 1984 (1949), the dystopian imagining of a future society devoid of privacy and freedom of thought. Born of Orwell’s own disillusionment with the Spanish Civil War and the realisation that nationalism hid an ugly agenda of oppression and lies, 1984 was a scathing critique of authoritarianism. It was repeatedly challenged and banned for its social and political themes, as pro-communist connotations.
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Alice Walker – The Colour Purple
Alice Walker’s moving exploration of African-American women’s experience in the Southern states won her the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Focusing on the inequality and injustice the women faced, the novel forced its audience to confront its own shortcomings as a modern society. In spite of reverence among critics, the novel was widely criticised for its sexual references, violence, and depictions of LGBT characters. Fuelling the controversy was Walker’s decision to prevent publication and distribution in Israel as a way of protesting the country’s “apartheid and persecution of the Palestinian people”. This was condemned as “bigotry” by lawyer and scholar Alan Dershowitz, but the author remains a vocal opponent of Israel.
Bret Easton Ellis – American Psycho
Before Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman, there was Bret Easton Ellis’: vain, violent, and shallow, he was the absolute emblem of capitalist America. American Psycho (1991) was banned in multiple countries, including Australia, for its violence and sexual references. The stream-of-consciousness novel incited disgust in international audiences for its explicit and unapologetic descriptions of violence and apparent condemnation for the central tenets of American life. Although his early work was widely criticised, Easton Ellis is no stranger to more recent controversy. His 2019 book of essays, “White”, casts aspersions on modern liberalism, criticises the perceived obsession with race in America, and defends controversial figures like Donald Trump.
Peter Parnell and Justin Peterson – And Tango Makes Three
Proving that even stories with the best intentions are not immune from controversy, is And Tango Makes Three (2005). Based on the true story of two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo and their adopted daughter, And Tango Makes Three was the most frequently challenged book from 2006 to 2010 according to the ALA. Disapproval of the children’s book was hinged on claims the story was “anti-family”, inciting international outrage for challenging assumptions about what makes a family.
In spite of the controversy they initially caused, some of the most divisive fiction from history has been a catalyst for social justice and inspiration for people who needed it. Now more than ever, the pursuit of truth and the reflection of real people’s experiences are vital. The questioning of society, politics, race, greed, sex, and philosophy are uiquitous and unrelenting in fiction throughout history. If art imitates life, then who are we to criticise it when it makes us uncomfortable? Like Oscar Wilde, controversial author himself, said; “The books that the world calls immoral are the books that show the world its own shame.”