Well since, out of curiosity, I’ve started reading a pivotal novel in the history of artistic freedom in Britain (D.H.Lawrence’s once-banned 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, which eventually led to the end of book censorship in Britain during the 1960s), I thought that I’d talk about some of the advantages and disadvantages of writing a “controversial” book.
One traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel is that it will be remembered a lot more easily than a less controversial novel will. After all, if a novel pushes a boundary or breaks a rule for the first time, then it’ll become part of literary history – especially if it results in more creative freedom for other authors as a result. Going back to “Lady Chatterley”, ordinary mainstream modern fiction in the UK owes a lot to the freedoms that were afforded by the interpretation of the law in the trial surrounding its reprinting in 1960. Without this trial, modern British fiction would still be stifled by some extremely puritanical censorship rules.
On the downside, this fame or posterity is something that often only arrives years or decades later, with the author often suffering disproportionate retribution in the meantime. If you read a basic overview of D.H.Lawrence’s life, you’ll see that he was widely derided during his lifetime and actually had to spend quite a few years in exile. And this was before social media was invented! He only became a respected literary figure several years after his death. So, yes, writing a memorably controversial novel won’t usually result in anything good for years after publication.
Another traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel was that it instantly gave the novel a certain level of interest or rebellious cachet that it wouldn’t otherwise have. I mean, if it wasn’t for the fact that “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” was once a banned book, I probably wouldn’t have been curious about reading what is essentially a rather dated and slow-paced literary novel which often isn’t really that much more risqué than similar scenes from an average modern romance or urban fantasy novel or even a 1980s horror novel. But, because it was banned once, this novel instantly seems a lot more interesting than it actually is.
On the downside, we currently live in an age where controversy is commonly seen as an emphatically bad thing, rather than anything “cool” or “rebellious”. So, this might actually decrease your readership in this modern age.
Yet another traditional advantage of writing a controversial novel was that people read a lot more in the past. So, a controversial novel was more of an important thing back then. For example, although it was never banned in the UK, there was apparently quite a famous long-running discussion of William Burroughs’ “Naked Lunch” in the letters page of a major newspaper during the 1960s. So, traditionally, controversial novels tended to actually provoke major discussions and to actually matter to people. After all, this is where the word “controversial” comes from – something that provokes conversation.
On the downside, this won’t really happen today. Yes, people still read books, but films, the internet, videogames etc… are much more popular entertainment mediums. Books only get major press coverage when they are massive bestsellers and/or prize-winning literary novels. Even then, this doesn’t happen all that often.
So, even the idea of a book causing a major large-scale controversy seems laughably quaint these days. And this change is probably a good thing. Because books are an old medium where the battles over creative freedom have long since been fought and won, because books are a medium that require time and effort to read and because they are no longer seen an “ordinary” entertainment medium (and, instead are seen as “high-brow” in comparison to TV, film, games, the internet etc..), it is very difficult for a book to cause more than a small level of controversy these days.
So, writing a seriously controversial novel is not only a lot more difficult these days but, even if you manage it, then you probably won’t enjoy the results.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂