It can be quite hard to measure controversy, and while books that are banned can be a useful metric for how controversial a book is, the books in our list below have gone way beyond that, sparking widespread outrage during their time of publication, becoming the catalyst for real harm done to the publisher, author and everybody else involved with the book, and were published years ago but are still famous (or infamous) today.
If you enjoy reading challenging books that tackle heavy subjects then 14 of the most controversial books published in English below might be for you.
To say this book caused some controversy would be an understatement. The Satanic Verses is Salman Rushdie’s 4th novel that was published in 1988.
It tells the story of two Indian Muslim men named Saladin and Gibreel who are aboard a hijacked plane.
Following an explosion, they’re miraculously saved, however, Gibreel becomes the persona of the archangel Gabriel, while Saladin assumes the persona of a demon.
A notable feature of the novel is the fictionalized visions of the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and is why the novel is so controversial.
The title comes from an incident in the book where Muhammed is said to receive a revelation from Satan under the guise of God, telling Muhammad to worship Manat, al-Uzzat, and al-Lat, three goddesses from pre-Islamic times.
Other controversial scenes in the novel include a scene where a group of prophets dresses up as the wives of the Prophet, and a scene where the companion of the Prophet announces he altered sections of the Quran he disagreed with.
While the novel received positive reviews from critics and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, many Muslims believed the book to be blasphemous.
This famously culminated in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a fatwa against Rushdie, ordering his death. While this lapsed 9 years later, it technically existed for long after that.
Rushdie required police protection, book stores in the UK and US were bombed, protestors burned copies of the books, and the book was banned in the Middle East altogether.
The controversy of this book has also been fatal. Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese translator, was murdered in 1991. Meanwhile, Norwegian and Italian translators were also seriously hurt.
While The Satanic Verses remains infamous today, the level of anger about the novel has definitely simmered down since it was released.
According to Rushdie, the fatwa against him is now basically inactive. Still, it’s hard to underestimate the storm this book created.
While it was popular upon publication, various infamous film adaptations of the 1955 novel Lolita have helped it reach superstar status.
It focuses on the title character, ‘Lolita,’ a 12-year-old American girl who is preyed upon by her pedophile stepfather Humbert Humbert.
Nabokov struggled to find a publisher, with Doubleday, Simon and Schuster and Viking rejecting the novel. This led to him publishing the book via French Olympia Press.
It’s difficult to top the storm that followed The Satanic Verses, but Lolita was banned in both France and the UK for a few years.
Notably, unlike other works on this list, the controversy surrounding the novel has grown over the years, rather than simmered down.
While it is undoubtedly a well-written book with exquisite prose and packed with literary allusions, the subject is naturally hard to stomach.
Plus, modern readers tend to be more sensitive to the abuse Lolita suffers than readers in the 1950s were.
The Catcher In The Rye was published in 1951 and has garnered cult status ever since, being seen as the quintessential book about teenage angst. One million copies of the novel still get sold annually, with over 65 million sales.
The novel centers on Holden Caulfield, a 16-year-old whose thoughts on themes like identity and innocence still resonate with many readers today.
The Catcher In The Rye received critical acclaim when it was released and this critical acclaim continues today. People like Bill Gates, for example, consider it to be one of their favorite books. However, the book is certainly not without its criticisms.
In 1981, it was both the most-read and second-most-censored book in US high schools, and the reason why it was so censored is due to the blasphemy, vulgarity, and sexual references in the book, as well as a perceived subversion of morality and family values.
However, while The Catcher In The Rye has a teenage protagonist, Salinger actually wrote the book for adults to read.
What makes this book so controversial however, is its direct association with a few violent incidents.
Most famously, the murder of John Lennon by Mark David Chapman in 1980, who felt such a strong connection with Holden Caulfield that he had a copy of the novel in his possession when he assassinated the famous artist and read a passage from the novel at his court sentencing.
He also referred to the novel as ‘his statement,’ and apparently had a wish to legally change his name to Holden.
John Hickley Jr, attempted to murder President Ronald Reagan in 1981, and said he was inspired by Chapman, and Robert John Bardo also had a copy of the novel in his possession when he killed an actress named Rebecca Schaeffer in 1989.
To Kill A Mockingbird is an undisputed American classic and is an essential read for students in the US and abroad.
But while it has been a staple of high school curriculums since it was originally published in 1960, it has faced a lot of backlash in recent years.
Set in Alabama in the early 1930s, the novel highlights the extremes of inequality, racial injustice, and the prejudice black people faced in the Southern states of America.
However, if US school boards agree that students should be educated about the injustices of American history, then why do more and more people want this important novel to be banned?
Well, many parents and teachers have argued that the racial slurs mentioned in the book warrant a ban.
Some people have also pointed out that the character Atticus Finch is an example of the ‘white savior’ trope, and that books that better educate children about race and the history of racism in America have been published since To Kill A Mockingbird, especially those written by authors of color.
But those who believe To Kill A Mockingbird should stay on the curriculum argue that during the civil rights era those who supported racial segregation also called for the book to be banned.
So those who would like to remove the book now in the name of social justice are rather ironic.
They also argue that when children are exposed to racial slurs in a book, this doesn’t necessarily mean they will integrate these slurs into their language. Rather, books that explore why these racial slurs are so harmful can deter children from using these terms and teach children that what they say matters.
Robert Langdon’s adventures across Europe visiting ancient sites took the world by storm, and The Da Vinci Code is now one of the most popular books ever written.
However, it also received backlash from Christian groups all over the world, due to its alternative take on Christian history, particularly regarding the figure of Mary Magdalene and the Holy Grail.
The novel also sparked rumors of concealed texts that were omitted from the Bible hundreds of years ago.
It also ignited new claims of long-hidden secrets with the power to change our understanding of Christianity.
The Da Vinci Code also features many inflammatory insinuations about the corrupt history of Catholicism, and so the Catholic Church was outraged.
They accused Dan Brown of historical and scientific inaccuracies and misrepresenting Christ, which they believed to be the highest form of blasphemy.
Still, the Da Vinci Code is one of the bestselling books of the 21st century. It has sold more than 80 million copies around the world, proving that outrage sells!
Toni Morrison’s debut novel, The Bluest Eye was released in 1970 and tells the story of a young black girl with crippling self-esteem due to suffering years of racist abuse.
She is told she is too ugly and strange all her life, and will never be accepted.
So, she starts praying for blue eyes so she can be accepted and loved like the little white girls around her.
This bestselling novel is both heartbreaking and powerful, and since its publication has regularly been close to the top of the American Library Association’s list of most challenged books.
It’s also sparked a considerable amount of controversy over the years.
Parents, teachers, and school boards have called for it to be removed from the curriculum and school libraries due to its graphic, offensive language.
The novel has even been accused of promoting an ‘underlying socialist-communist agenda.’
However, Morrison and her supporters have argued that society shouldn’t shoot down challenging stories.
Rather, we should be teaching young people how to acknowledge and process the painful aspects of society so we can overcome them.
The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn faced a lot of criticism when it was published way back in 1885, and this controversy still persists today.
Critics originally believed the book portrayed Jim, Huck’s family slave, too kindly. Later, Twain was accused of using racist stereotypes to turn Jim into a ‘minstrel’ like character.
Readers also find the frequent use of racial slurs as offensive and inappropriate for children.
Supporters of Twain’s work argue that removing the slurs or removing the novel from schools altogether is an example of censorship and that The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is an important look at US society in the 1880s.
Ulysses was first published in full in 1922, and has a reputation as being one of the greatest literary masterpieces of the 1900s.
It was first published in France, and the content of the novel was considered controversial for the usual reasons: graphic language and sexual content.
However, a lot of the controversy surrounding the novel comes from the publishing history. It’s a pretty convoluted history, with 18 editions of the novel out there.
Each edition was aiming to correct the mistakes of previous versions, as the original edition had more than 2,000 errors. However, this constant republishing just resulted in more errors.
The Color Purple was published in 1982 and tells the story of Celie, an African American girl who was born at the beginning of the 20th century, and faces abuse from her father and husband, for whom she is in a loveless marriage.
However, she has a personal awakening when she enters a relationship with a female blues singer, Shug.
The novel was an instant hit and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1983. Walker was the first black female author to win the prize.
Still, its crude language and explicit violent and sexual scenes have also caused controversy, which is also heightened by the portrayal of the same-sex relationship between Celie and Shug.
Questions have also been raised about the depiction of black men in the novel, as most of the black male characters in the novel are prone to violence.
Brave New World was originally a parody of the science fiction novels of H.G. Wells, and cracked the ALA’s top 10 list of most challenged books in 2010 and 2011, due to its “insensitivity, nudity, racism, religious viewpoint, [and] sexually explicit content.”
While the 1932 novel concerning a dystopian World State where people live in a social hierarchy based on intelligence does contain all these things, it is still a compelling read!
Published in 1949, George Orwell’s 1984 was controversial as soon as it was released.
The Ministry of Truth and The Thought Police touched a nerve in a society that was divided following the Second World War.
The iconic novel paints a grim image of the future world led by Big Brother in a society robbed of privacy and free will.
The novel has been adapted into movies and plays and is revered to this day for its prescient themes, especially as the internet makes us rethink our relationship with privacy.
While The Bell Jar is a controversial novel, you can still find it in libraries across the US.
Originally published under a pseudonym in 1863, Sylvia Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel focuses on a young woman named Esther and her struggles with mental illness.
Esther battles debilitating depression and attempts suicide multiple times as she tries to ingratiate herself into New York’s publishing world.
Published anonymously in 1971, Go Ask Alice is a fictional account of a young woman’s descent into drug abuse, written in an unflinching diary format.
In this controversial book, two teenage friends experiment with drugs and their mental health suffers. The book features many depictions of drug use and sexual violence.
Is Alice able to achieve sobriety? This harrowing and controversial novel has gripped readers throughout the years, determined to find out just what happens to Alice.
It may be a surprise to see a novel about a dog on this list, but Jack London’s most popular short novel is often considered controversial for its levels of violence.
Because of its stripped back writing, short length, and the main character being a dog called Buck, many people believe The Call of The Wild is a book for children.
However, the novel doesn’t hold back from depicting dog fights, animal abuse, and the desire to defy the constraints society places on you.
Furthermore, Jack London was a passionate Socialist, and The Call Of The Wild was burned in Nazi bonfires in 1933 and banned by fascist Italy in 1929.
These are some of the most controversial, scandalous, and infamous books ever published.
Each of these novels has caused a public outcry for a variety of reasons, and many groups have fought to censor the messages that some of these books espouse.
Unfortunately, censorship isn’t going anywhere and the freedom to seek out and read ideas is still as pertinent today as it was 50 or even 100 years ago.
If you like to read classic novels that tackle heavy themes such as race, sexuality, and religion, then I hope you enjoy the books on this list.
Frequently Asked Questions
What Makes A Book Controversial?
Many of the novels on this list are considered controversial because they contain offensive language and explicitly violent or sexual scenes, or they deal with sensitive topics like gender identity and race.
Why Should You Read Controversial Books?
Since controversial or banned books tackle subjects that are topical and timely, they can be a powerful reading experience and can help you deal with challenging issues like prejudice, identity and grief.