10 Banned Books And The Stories Behind Their Controversy

By: Jonny Hughes

There’s something particularly offensive about banning a book; that’s not to say that there aren’t limits to what can and can’t be expressed, and all of that is defined by the good conscience of the writer at hand, but for whatever reason it seems as though books (and in this case, novels in particular) have always remained a bastion for freedom of creative expression, in all of its forms. With that idea in mind, we here at Goliath have taken a look at some of the most controversial texts we could think of and done some research into why these classic texts were banned in the first place. Of course, with 50 Shades of Grey spending a significant amount of time on the New York Times Bestseller List, some might argue we’re past the point of banning books…


10. Madame Bovary (Gustave Flaubert)

The subject of much controversy after being serialized in 1856, Madame Bovary is the debut novel of French author Gustave Flaubert. Now viewed as a masterpiece of modernist literature and one of the founding texts of realism, Madame Bovary tells the story of a doctor’s wife who uses a series of extramarital affairs and liberal spending habits to combat the shortcomings of a domestic life. The text, which features numerous adulterous scenes but is hardly incendiary as we understand it in the 21st century, was attacked by critics for undermining traditional values. Flaubert and his text were placed on trial for obscenities in January of 1857, shortly after the novel was published in its full form. After Flaubert’s acquittal, the novel went on to become a fundamental modernist text which is taught in University classrooms worldwide.

9. The Color Purple (Alice Walker)

Alice Walker’s novel The Color Purple is an important book in a myriad of ways, and because of that it should come as no surprise that it was extremely controversial at the time of its publication (if you’re saying something important, the odds are really good you’re going to piss someone off). The novel, which is told in epistolary form (a fancy word for “written as a series of letters”), focuses on the trials and tribulations of African American women in the 1930s, specifically those who live in the Southern states of America. A graphic text which has often been the target of censors and book banners due to its portrayals of violence and its vitriolic criticisms of existing power structures, The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize Award for fiction and the National Book Award upon its release. Critics have also attempted to have the book banned due to its discussions of sexuality, homosexuality and “social explicitness” (read, telling the damn truth about race relations).

8. The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck)

Remember what we said up there about “when you say something important, people will undoubtedly get angry about it”? Yeah…John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a very, very good example of that. Released to critical acclaim in 1939 (when it won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Price), The Grapes of Wrath would quickly anger the upper class who were so thoroughly critiqued in this novel about the hardships of lower class life. Set amongst the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath was accused of harboring pro-Communist tendencies (a big no-no at the time) and of goading the masses towards riots and revolutions. Deeply criticized for his portrayal of the brutal conditions of the Depression and branded a socialist for his beliefs, Steinbeck would ultimately have the last laugh as he continued to produce classic text after classic text on his way to winning the Nobel Prize in 1962.

7. The Satanic Verses (Salman Rushdie)

The fourth novel from acclaimed Indian author Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses steers pretty close to home to the author. It employs his usual tactics of magical realism and Indian history to produce a story that aptly critiques many of the inconsistencies that still apply to Indian culture and tradition (along with cultures and traditions worldwide, if we’re being honest). All well and good, right? The controversy surrounding this text stems from its reference to several verses of the Quran, an act which was deemed extremely offensive to certain sects of the Muslim community. This offense led to the book being banned and even burned in many places, including India, Pakistan and the United Kingdom. The outrage grew to such a ridiculous extent that a fatwa (death sentence) was issued against Rushdie and several attempts were made upon his life and the lives of those close to him.


6. The Well of Loneliness (Radclyffe Hall)

Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness is one of the more controversial texts on this list, but why it was so controversial is pretty hilarious when viewed in hindsight. The novel, which follows a young lesbian named Stephen Gordon through her experiences in the First World War and her relationship with a woman named Mary Llewellyn, was heavily lambasted for condoning “unnatural practices between women,” despite the fact that the novel’s sole sexual encounter is summated as “and that night, they were not divided.” Juxtapose that with 50 Shades of Grey and try and make sense of changing morals in the 20th century, right? While not considered a preeminent literary achievement, The Well of Loneliness holds the distinction of being a foundational lesbian text and one of the most important in breaking down censorship surrounding LGBT forms of expression.

5. Ulysses (James Joyce)

Imagine what it must’ve felt like to be James Joyce. You’ve dedicated however many years of your life to producing one of the most astounding creative achievements of all time (yes, we’re spreading that across all forms of art, not just literature), wherein you detail the entire conscious experience of a single day in the life of one man, and when your book is released its labelled obscene? The author is the one who should’ve been offended here, don’t you think? Ulysses, which was banned and burned in the United States between 1921 and 1933, was also banned until the 1930s in Britain due to a scene which hinted metaphorically at masturbation. The novel, which went on to become one of the most important ever written, has since been cleared of all charges of obscenity as its literary value has grown more apparent and changing morals have allowed for a more liberal understanding of metaphors.

4. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (J.K. Rowling)

We know what you’re thinking. Harry Potter? Really, parents of America? We’re tearing down beautiful tales about acceptance, tolerance and adventure now? That’s where we’re at, as a society? Unfortunately, yes it is. Upon its release in 1998, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was heavily criticized by certain religious groups for glorifying the processes of witchcraft and steering children towards paganism, among other things. It was even banned in certain schools due to the overwhelming complaints of these religious groups, completely negating the powerful educational tool that the novel can be used as, a tool to teach children that it’s alright to be different and that by working with others we can achieve great things. We’re pretty sure J.K. Rowling wasn’t too miffed about these complaints though, as the Harry Potter novels have gone on to become one of the most important series in history and have positively influenced millions of children worldwide. Literature 1, religious fanatics 0.

3. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury)

We know, we know. There’s no way life’s this ironic, right Alanis? Nobody would think to ban a book about…book banning, would they? Apparently they would, because that’s exactly what happened when Ray Bradbury released his now classic novel, Fahrenheit 451, which follows a man whose profession it is to burn any and all contraband books found within an individual’s home (spoiler alert, they’re all contraband). Criticized for vague sexual content and offensive language (neither of which are overt in the text), Fahrenheit 451 has become one of the most powerful allegories in the fight against censorship, and its real life battle with censors and critics only seems to add to this classic text’s literary influence as the years pass.

2. American Psycho (Bret Easton Ellis)

The controversial history of Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho is far too long to post in its entirety here. The novel, which follows a wealthy and insane businessman as he commits a series of grisly (and intricately detailed) murders, is beyond graphic in its depictions of violence and has also been labelled misogynistic, vapid, damaging to readers and lacking in literary value. While opinions vary on the true cultural value of American Psycho, it’s a novel so controversial that it is still technically banned in many places, as some countries (such as Australia) refuse to sell the novel unless it is shrink wrapped on the shelves (to prevent readers from stumbling on something gruesome hidden in the pages as they flip through).


1. Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)

It’s difficult to entirely summate what makes Lolita both a revolting novel and an incredible one; the text, which revolves around an extremely unreliable narrator’s sexual fascination with a young girl named Lolita, has been simultaneously condemned and exalted since its publication in 1955. A stunning literary achievement that features some of the finest prose in the history of the English language, Lolita is also a novel about pedophilia, lust and eroticism, a tragedy which explores the tortured relationship between an adult man and the far too young object of his obsession. While it has been criticised and banned in numerous countries, the novel’s literary importance has moved to far outweigh the vague suggestions of sexuality between the wordy narrator and the young girl; most scholars agree that despite its controversial subject matter, Lolita is a masterpiece that will be studied for decades to come.