Top 10 Most Controversial Best-Selling English Language Books

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Dan N. Scarborough

Dan N. Scarborough

Last updated:  2023-10-24 12:52:13

The term "controversial" can be challenging to define. Thus this list goes beyond a simple count of the books that have been outlawed the most. Otherwise, given how many times various schools and religious institutions have attempted to ban them, a specific children's book series, including magic, would be here. Nonetheless, the majority of people don't consider that content to be contentious in general.

We made an effort to choose works that, when they were released, provoked genuine and widespread resentment. Furthermore, they frequently lead to obscenity trials or pose a significant risk to the publisher and author. Without further ado, here are ten of the most controversial best-selling books published for English-speaking readers.

10. "The Catcher in the Rye" by J.D. Salinger

Tale of stepping into adulthood, adored by generations
Country of origin: United States
Genre: Coming-of-age
Level of obscenity: Mild
Level of controversy: Mild

Salinger's 1951 book is regarded as a cult classic and a symbol of adolescent angst. The narrative centers on 16-year-old Holden Caulfield, whose reflections on identity and innocence have an enduring attraction for innumerable readers.

But almost as much criticism has been voiced in response to this degree of admiration. Amusingly, in 1981 it was at the same time the most-taught and second-most-censored book in American high schools. Sexual allusions, blasphemy, obscenity, and apparent defiance of moral and family values are among the things that are subject to censorship. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that Salinger wrote the book with an adult readership in mind.

9. "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker

Some of the descriptions of Afroamerican folk didn't age well
Country of origin: United States
Genre: Historical fiction
Level of obscenity: Mild
Level of controversy: Average

The tale of Celie, an African American child growing up in the first half of the 20th century, is told in Alice Walker's 1982 book. Additionally, the girl is involved in a romantic relationship with Shug, a female blues performer. Walker became the first black woman to win the 1983 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction with the book, which received immediate praise from critics. 

However, controversy has been stirred up by its depictions of graphic violence, sex, foul language, and a same-sex relationship. The degree to which the book perpetuates stereotypes about violent Black men has also come under scrutiny. There was a recent controversy concerning this book when an actress cast to play Celie in a theater production got fired after a homophobic comment on social networks. 

8. "Ulysses" by James Joyce

Genius intertextual work or drunken rambling of an Irishman?
Country of origin: Ireland
Genre: Experimental / Philosophical
Level of obscenity: Mid
Level of controversy: Above Average

This modernist book by Irish writer James Joyce describes Leopold Bloom's daily interactions with people in Dublin, Ireland, on 16 June 1904. The work also makes comparisons to Homer's legendary poem "Odyssey." "Ulysses" is regarded as one of the finest literary works because of its intricate characterization and puns.

However, it has caused a lot of controversies since it was first published, including the obscenity trial in the USA in 1921 and the protracted textual "Joyce Wars." From today's perspective, all those controversies seem tame compared to other entries on this list. Nevertheless, "Ulysses" garnered a lot of infamies which became a part of its charm.

7. "Forever" by Judy Blume

Open talk about sexuality was a great taboo just 50 years ago
Country of origin: United States
Genre: Coming-of-age
Level of obscenity: Above Average
Level of controversy: Mild

The seventh most frequently challenged book on the top 100 list of the American Library Association is Blume's book "Forever." Since it was released in 1975, the controversy has existed for at least 25 years. The main reason for that is how the book depicts teen sex and sexuality. 

The main characters are an 18-year-old Katherine and her new boyfriend, Michael, and the book is about navigating sex in their relationship. The work has been banned in many secondary schools because of the frank discussions about losing one's virginity and Katherine's use of birth control. Naturally, the book is no longer as contentious because so many contemporary young adult novels focus on depictions of safe sex. However, it's still somewhat infamous because of its historical ties to illegal reading.

6. "Nineteen Eighty-Four" by George Orwell

1984 was a warning, not the instruction manual
Country of origin: England
Genre: Dystopian SciFi
Level of obscenity: Average
Level of controversy: Above Average

If there's a book that served as a warning against totalitarianism, it is Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-four." It takes place in a dystopian world where a totalitarian regime rules. In our world, nobody is safe or free to live or even love how they choose. 

Few books, let alone science fiction novels, have managed to acquire the level of mainstream culture that Orwell's terrifying dystopia did for his contemporaries and later readers. Often used as a metaphor for social and political injustices, terms like newspeak, Big Brother, the Thought Police, and Room 101 are easily recognizable and understood.

5. "Lady Chatterley's Lover" by D.W. Lawrence

The first controversial book, but not so well written
Country of origin: England
Genre: Erotic fiction
Level of obscenity: Above Average
Level of controversy: Above Average

This is the original contentious book, sparking controversy in the U.K. and several other nations. The titular Lady Chatterley, whose husband has been made impotent by a handicap, is the protagonist of Lawrence's 1928 novella. She ultimately starts dating Oliver, her groundskeeper. What comes next is content filled with vulgarity and graphic adultery.

In our humble opinion, this book is terrible on a literary level. If you had a pound for every time the phrase "bowels" was used in this writing, you would be Jeff Bezos. Therefore, it's dull, undeveloped, and overused. Of course, it isn't contentious in modern times and is well deserved. A book that is so terribly written deserves nothing more than obscurity.

4. "Tropic of Cancer" by Henry Miller

Henry Miller wrote without any inhibition
Country of origin: United States
Genre: Fictional Autobiography
Level of obscenity: Substantial 
Level of controversy: Groundbreaking

As "Lady Chatterley's Lover" did for the U.K., this novel essentially breached the obscenity rules in the United States. "Tropic of Cancer," a semi-autobiographical portrayal of Miller's life that contains multiple explicit sex scenes, was released in 1934. 

The book's original country of publication was France; however, the U.S. Customs Service forbade its import, and legal bids to have Miller recognized as a "serious writer" were unsuccessful. Consequently, Grove Press didn't release the book in America until 1961. Numerous lawsuits were filed right away, with more than 60 in 21 states against the booksellers that stocked it. Since then, the book has been referred to repeatedly as one of the best literary creations of the 20th century.

3. "Satanic Verses" by Salman Rushdie 

Muslims were so offended they tried to kill Rushdie
Country of origin: England
Genre: Magic Realism
Level of obscenity: Average 
Level of controversy: Obscene

Rushdie's fourth book, released in 1988, sparked serious debate. Gibreel and Saladin are two Indian Muslims imprisoned on a hijacked aircraft. They are miraculously saved when it explodes, but Gibreel takes on the identity of the archangel Gabriel and Saladin, that of a demon. The pretty toxic relationship that will have long-lasting ramifications on both starts off like this.

It would be difficult to overestimate the level of controversy generated by the book's publishing. Islamic extremist bombings, assassinations, and riots were caused by the book and its alleged blasphemy, which also spurred a discussion about censorship and violent religious extremism. Attacks were made against Rushdie and those related to him, including the 1991 death of Hitoshi Igarashi, a Japanese translator. Rushdie continued to be the target of assassination attempts, one of which occurred in August 2022.

2. "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

Lolita's infamy just grew over the age
Country of origin: USSR
Genre: Romance, Psychological
Level of obscenity: Huge 
Level of controversy: Even Bigger

Famous in its own right, several widely publicized film adaptations have contributed to the success of this 1955 book. A 12-year-old American girl named Lolita, who spends most of the book engaged in a pedophilic relationship with her stepfather Humbert Humbert, is the main character.

The international response might appear subdued compared to the "Satanic Verses." The book was outlawed in Britain and France, although only briefly in each country. Since its first release, however, reviewers have criticized the untrustworthy nature of Humbert's narration, and several have specifically accused him of being a rapist. Seems that "Lolita" grew in controversy, unlike most entries in this list. 

1. "120 Days of Sodom" by Marquis De Sade

The most deranged work ever written
Country of origin: France
Genre: Erotic fiction
Level of obscenity: Egregious
Level of controversy: Unmatched

A list of the "most controversial books" would be incomplete without mentioning the horrifyingly graphic "120 Days of Sodom" by the Marquis de Sade. It was started in 1785 when he was detained in the Bastille and released in its incomplete form in 1904.

The book's main characters are four affluent, hedonistic men whose lives spiral downward into greater depravity, including pedophilia, coprophagia, and horrific torture that ends in murder. That de Sade himself referred to it as "the most dirty narrative that has ever been told since the world started" is hardly surprising. There's a film with the same name directed by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which matches the depravity of the book quite well.

It's become more and more difficult to publish "controversial" novels. Many of the previous justifications for book bans have been disproved by the meteoric rise of independent publishing and the loosening of obscenity and vulgarity laws. These days, novels are more likely to receive bad press if their authors are thought to have incorporated other forms of offensive material rather than just explicit content.

What's your favorite (or least favorite) controversial book? Which books would you add to the list?

Cover photo: Prettysleepy/Pixabay



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