Controversial Books: A Good Story is a Good Story

Controversial books, picture of burning books

Now that Banned Books Week is drawing to a close, I promise this is the last picture of a burning book you’ll see for a while. On the other hand, I don’t think enough attention can be drawn to the move to ban or challenge controversial books. Please join R.J. Crayton as she shares her thoughts on the controversy surrounding some well-known compelling stories.

Writing on Controversial Topics

When writers get an idea for a story, they often sit down and start planning or writing, not sure where it will take them. When the idea goes down a path that is controversial, or takes a turn that readers might find offensive, some writers feel compelled to pause and ask themselves: do I really want to do this?

The answer should be yes, if that’s what the story mandates.

Unpublished, newly published and self-published authors may be particularly wary of things that might draw controversy—and potentially discourage readers from trying their books.

However, a good story is a good story, whether it’s controversial or not. A good story, even if the subject matter is controversial or objectionable, according to some, will bring readers.

Blockbuster Controversial Books with Compelling Stories

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I can see the pitch meeting now. “I know parents fear Columbine-like rages and teen-dating violence, but let me propose this exciting book where teens battle to the death, violently grappling, maiming, decapitating and otherwise injuring each other until only one is left standing.” I read The Hunger Games shortly after it was originally published. I remember recommending it to a friend, and going, “It’s sort of about teens killing each other, but ignore all that, because that’s not really what it’s about. Just read it. Seriously. You’ll like it. Trust me.” I know. I’m a writer, and that’s the best I could do. If you asked me to point out all the soul-touching themes The Hunger Games expressed, I’m sure I could, if you gave me some time. The truth is, The Hunger Games is a book that, despite it’s massively violent context, isn’t just about violence. If Suzanne Collins had let a fear of controversy over the violent content deter her, we’d be a world without Katniss and Peeta. And that’s a sad, sad world.

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Here’s the pitch meeting (spoiler included): “So, the Catholic church tries to cover up the fact that Jesus had a wife by spending years murdering (or trying to) anyone who could expose this evidence, including the latest to uncover these facts: Harvard Professor Robert Langdon.” Hmm. Catholics are a pretty big religious denomination worldwide. Dan Brown could’ve said he didn’t want to touch that subject with a ten foot pole. Only he didn’t He wrote it. And it was a bestseller, despite protests from Catholics.

Picture of DaVinci Code Protest

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. This book pretty much contends God is not real and that religion is responsible for divisiveness and most of the world’s turmoil and wars. Yeah. That’s going to create controversy, given how many people take part in religion and believe in God. But the author still wrote it.

Fifty Shades of Grey by EL James. This book has gone on to be a worldwide bestseller. There was no pre-publication pitch meeting that discussed the subject matter (this was a tale that caught fire online and the publishers said, I want a piece of that action and bought rights to publish it). Fifty Shades looks at a BDSM (bondage, dominance, submission and masochism) relationship, which was pretty much considered too kinky for mainstream. Yet, Fifty did the unthinkable and made erotica OK for the masses. If James had shied away for fear of offending, just think what we would have missed, especially the erotica authors whose titles are now given a shot by people who wouldn’t have looked twice at them two years ago.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. A man lusts for his stepdaughter and, after her mother dies, forces the girl into sexual favors by threatening to send her to foster care has a truly repugnant theme. However, Nabokov didn’t care. He wrote a tale that sears itself into the collective memory and is still read more than sixty years after it was first published. As vile as the actions of the main character are,  Nabokov didn’t shy away from it for fear of controversy.

So, if you’re a writer out there, don’t worry about controversy, if it’s an integral part of your story. Just tell the story you know is in you. If it’s a good story, the readers will love it. (Do worry about controversy, however, if you’re just writing something controversial so people will notice.  Controversial books without an authentic tale get panned very quickly.)

What controversial books have you found compelling? We’d love to know!

Author photo of R. J. CraytonR.J. Crayton is the author of Life First, a mildly controversial dystopian novel about a woman fleeing a forced kidney transplant. To find out more about her or her book, visit http://rjcrayton.com.

 

 

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Image Credit: Book Burning via Wikimedia
Image Credit: DaVinci Protestor via Wikimedia.
Author Photo: Courtesy R. J. Crayton

 

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Author: JeriWB Guest

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36 Comments

  1. I have read three of the five books you listed, most recently Lolita. Gotta say, on the one hand he writes about sexual desire very well but then you get creep out that the girl is underage. I also think it looked into the mind of a pedophile – I don’t think he thought what he was doing was wrong.

    In celebration of banned book week, our library put paper book covers on some books to say why they were banned in some places and then you open the book to see what it was. Harry Potter was for witchcraft and occult and Anne Frank because it was a downer. Funny really. 🙂

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    • That was a cool thing your library did with the book covers. It’s often surprising what things people will want to ban (I remember being shocked that people cared enough that Harry Potter was about witchcraft that they wanted to ban it.)

      The good news is banned books often get more attention, nowadays, rather than less. The bad news is, in small communities, where people can’t necessarily afford to buy every book they want, it’s important that public libraries keep a wide variety of books, even controversial ones.

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    • Joanne, banning Anne Frank because it was a downer… ugh. I too can see the humor in people who want to ban such significant texts. It’s laughable that such narrow-mindedness exists, and yet it does and affects us every day.

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  2. I lived the hunger games. I do believe I read them faster than any other book I have ever read. It was a battle for the books between me and my daughter.

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    • Totally agree with you. Hunger Games was an awesome book, and as a parent, you always get first dibs, as you need to “check for appropriateness.” 🙂

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  3. I too have read 3 of the books on this list (well, watched 2 movies and read 1 book if I have to be honest :-P). I think writing on controversial topics is always good – as long as the writing is good (right, what you just said – a good story is always a good story!).

    I feel I am drawn to such books (and movies) because they make me think. They question certain beliefs (and no, I don’t mean religion or something), they often push us to the limits and if we approach a controversial book open minded and regardless if we do or don’t agree with what’s said in it, we might just learn something! The beauty is in the controversy itself, I would say…

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    • That’s a great way to sum it up, Diana: “he beauty is in the controversy itself.”

      A lot of times it’s enough just to ask the question, so people start thinking of some answers.

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  4. Yeah, I was totally in to The Hunger Games. There were so many lines drawn to our society, not to mention everything else that was contained in those pages. I like the Da Vinci Code was another good one I really enjoyed. I love banned books. Maybe that is a new marketing strategy.

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    • Using banned book status as a marketing strategy. I like that! If it’s a successful strategy, then we’ll have a glut of authors trying to get banned. 🙂

      However, controversial books that people want to read are the only ones that get banned. If nobody wanted to read the DaVinci Code, Hunger Games, or even Harry Potter, then no one would be interested in trying to get them banned. It’s sort of a double-edged sword. People have to want to read you before others want to ban you.

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  5. I saw the movie the Davinci Code. Does that count? Nah, huh.

    My husband has read the book the God Delusion. He wanted to support his own agnostic beliefs. Someday I might read it so that my spiritual side can understand him better. Somewhere along our 43 years of marriage he went in the direction of God Delusions.

    I cannot say that I have read any controversial books. Not because of lack of want. More because of time.

    Thanks Jeri and RJ.

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    • Time for reading is a big one for a lot of people. Two of my book club members get in a kerfuffle if the book isn’t available on audiotape (or maybe it’s just called audio, as I doubt anyone uses actual tapes anymore). They love listening to all the words the author has to say, but they don’t have time to sit and actually read the words. I find this intensely interesting, since stories are a primal force, and our brains are hardwired to listen to stories (look at the oldest religious texts– Bible, Koran, Torah–all sets of stories with the goal of conveying some larger message).

      If you enjoy controversial books, definitely consider checking out the audio versions–great for the commute or long trips.

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      • Listening to an audio book but having no interest in actually reading the words has an interesting twist for me. It has to do with watching movies on TV with and without subtitles. I have a hearing disability, so I want subtitles, particularly for movies with an accent of any kind, even English accents. I have watched movies over and over without subtitles, obviously enjoying them immensely. Then, I try them with subtitles. Oddly enough, seeing the words often changes the experience for me, often bringing my estimation of the movie down a notch. When I’m not hearing everything exactly as it’s said, it seems to be telling a totally different story, one that supports the visual effects much more. When I see the words, I’m thinking: oh, that’s not great dialogue, dude.

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        • That’s really interesting. Words on a page tell you the story you have in your head, but words you hear, they tell the story the speaker wants to tell. So, it’s always an interesting split.

          One of the book club books I enjoyed least, was enjoyed much much more by the person who did the audio. She felt a great deal of emotion, while I thought the words fell flat.

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  6. The topic of bannng books takes in a lot of ground. Readers can subconsciously ban books too by just refusing to even pick up a book they perceive as something they aren’t interested in or that is on a subject they don’t want to go anywhere near. I’m guilty of this. I’m probably not going to get any better either. I don’t think I’m ever going to read a Harry Potter book. I have seen one of the films. It was enough.

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    • I think someone mentioned the other day, there’s a difference between banning something and choosing not to buy it. I think readers will always make choices. Thankfully, as readers, our choices don’t have to make any sense or conform to anyone else’s standards. We can decide we think Kim Kardashian is a total twit and we don’t want to buy her book, while at the same time thinking Honey Boo Boo is awesome and buying her book (this is a hypothetical, as I don’t think Boo Boo has a book deal–yet).

      I think the key thing is to ensure that institutions built to keep knowledge available free to the public (like libraries) don’t stop carrying titles simply because they’re controversial. The Internet has been a wonderful equalizer when it comes to knowledge, but in many places, the public library is a key information source, and they should be full of Harry Potter, Da Vinci Code, Hunger Games, the God Delusion and more.

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  7. I have to say I was hooked on Hunger Games. it isn’t the type of book I usually read so maybe that was the reason. Sometimes because a book is banned only raises a persons curiously and compels one to go in search of the reason why. Then that very same book finds itself on the best seller list. Does the banned status make that happen. It does make one wonder. Just my thoughts. 🙂

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    • I think that books being on a banned list might make someone go seek it out. But, if the book turns out to be a dud, it won’t get any word-of-mouth, and won’t become a bestseller.

      Even if you’re banned, you have to put up the goods or no one will want to read you.

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  8. A good story is a good story when well written which your examples (of the ones I’ve read) are. Nabokov is a masterful writer. In his hands, you come to understand the mind of a pedophile, maybe even feel some compassion for him while still (in my case) hating the behavior. I couldn’t put that book down. Debate and controversy are healthy in a democracy. Suppression of ideas is not. Thanks for the examples–just goes to show that any genre or type of story is fair game.

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    • I absolutely agree with you — story is essential. And I think it’s great to have discussions over books. It’s a hallmark of an enlightened society.

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  9. I have read The Hunger Games and Da Vinci Code as well as watched the movies. I love those books. Controversial topics keep you thinking and spark emotions. I love them.

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    • You’re very right about controversial books sparking emotion. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons the banned ones tend to do so well–people really get emotionally involved in the book, and have strong feelings about it one way or the other. Strong feelings are what gets people talking and people talking about your book makes people want to read it.

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  10. Last year I had a very enlightening conversation with my friend’s son. He was 12 at the time and told me he was reading Lolita. He’s kind of precocious and very book smart, but… I’m glad I remained calm. I asked him what the book was about and he recited what sounded to me like a summary from a book jacket.

    I surprised him, by disagreeing and saying that, in my opinion, it was about an evil narrator seducing the reader into thinking what he was feeling and doing wasn’t fundamentally wrong. For me, Nabokov was challenging the reader. “How far down that road can I take you? How far down that road will you feel sympathy for me?”

    As this is my best friend’s son (since we were 6) I’m sure I’ll talk to him about this book when he’s older and see if he has his own understanding of it and why it is a controversial, and sometimes banned, work of literature.

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    • It’s always interesting to see how young people view these controversial books. So, it should be fun for you to talk to him more about the book later. People come at things from their own experience, and, often, young people have different perspectives.

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  11. Cool post, and I also like the advice to not be afraid to write about controversial subjects. It seems like some people take it too far because they’re trying to attract attention while others don’t take it far enough because they’re afraid of attracting attention!

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    • Great point, Dan. A story that’s not taken far enough just to avoid upsetting people can fall flat emotionally.

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  12. I love sci-fi, and loved The Hunger Games, precisely because both take issues from the present and project them out into an unknowable future where they can be examined in a sort of ‘objective’ way. The thing I find interesting is that last year’s controversy can quickly become this year’s bestseller. 🙂

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    • You make a good point about the Hunger Games being set in the future. I think removing it from the current situation helped it be more palatable to people. Teens battling to the death is deplorable, but by setting it in some distant future, people can enjoy it and feel like it’s fiction, as opposed to something that could confront their own children.

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  13. I can’t believe this week got away from me. My plan was to read a book from the banned book list and write a review. Unfortunately life happens and I was not able to accomplish this goal. I still want to read the book I selected, however, I will have to set that aside for the time being.

    You are right, those that shy away from controversal topics are shying away from telling a story, in some situations, a story that one person may find helpful and therapeutic.

    Thank you for sharing!!

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    • Yes, you make a good point about therapeutic books. I didn’t mention any, but there was a time when things like being a rape victim, alcoholic anorexic were considered very shameful things that people were expected to hide. There have been a lot of books out there that discussed these things at a time when it was a bit taboo. And by bringing the plight of these people out into the open in a real way, it shed light on real problems and helped others in therapeutic ways.

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  14. Maybe I’m just getting callous, but The DaVinci Code seemed pretty tame to me. You can’t ban speech these days — if it’s not in a book you’ll find all you need on the Internet. So banning books (as many conservative states have in classrooms) is a waste of time and effort. When people want to read something they will find a way.

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    • I’ll be honest in that I thought what Brown proposed in the DaVinci Code wasn’t all that extreme. However, I knew some Catholics who were very bothered by it. It all depends on the audience.

      And you’re right about the Internet. We’re lucky nowadays because it’s harder to keep information from people who have the Internet. Smartphones make the Internet accessible to more and more people (it’s the number one source of Internet access in some countries). But, libraries do still serve an important role, and hopefully they will keep their collections open.

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  15. I prefer Vladimir Nabokov’s other books and short stories. But they don’t get as much press, because they don’t have the shock value. Loved Pnin.

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  16. I totally loved Fifty Shades of Grey and the Da Vinci Code. Regarding the latter, I like the movie, too, and am awaiting the one for the former with eager anticipation. It probably won’t do the book justice (most movies don’t) but I am sure that they will try!

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  17. I love the Hunger Games and the Da Vinci Code. I’ve only seen the movies so I know the books must be amazing. I do however see how these probably wouldn’t be on a school reading list. There’s just too much parents can argue about.

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  18. I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code immensely. I can also see why it would upset some people. The author was clever enough to make the story plausible. I also read the first book of the Hunger Games and had to stop. It was just too much for me. My husband and kids devoured it. Just because something makes you uncomfortable doesn’t mean you ban it. Don’t like it? Don’t read it. Why would you try to force your opinion on other people?

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