13 Books That Wouldn't Be Published Today

In his new book of non-fiction, White, Bret Easton Ellis questions whether Cormac McCarthy’s dark western Blood Meridian would be published today. To paraphrase Ellis, Blood Meridian is an aesthetic masterpiece, but it’s also an ideological nightmare. It lives in the spot where aesthetics intersect with ideology. Or, not so much intersect as barrel towards each other like two trucks with burned-out brakes. After those trucks collide, would Blood Meridian come out of the wreckage whole?

I started thinking Ellis might be right, and I started wondering which other books might not make it in 2019.

1. "Fight Club" by Chuck Palahniuk

We really can't do transgressive fiction since 9/11. It's more difficult to get away with any kind of character doing really amoral things.

-Chuck Palahniuk

Chuck’s take has been consistent: Transgressive fiction ended when the towers fell.

Some would probably say that we don’t have the stomach anymore, or that the idea of the rebel remaking the world through violence isn’t appealing. If we’re being honest, now that we’ve seen the results of a 9/11-type event, we’d have to say that it wasn’t the rebirth of a better America. It wasn’t the end of corporations. Wasn’t the end of capitalism. Didn’t result in Americans living in a brand new way. Wasn't the end of you being your khakis. 

People who read Fight Club as a manifesto, as a set of literal directions, missed the point entirely. But I think those types of misreads are seen as more dangerous and omnipresent today than they were in 1996. People make careers out of misreading things, or out of discussing the ways others might misread them, writing thinkpieces, and leaving in their wake the husks of some really good art. Even if Fight Club managed to squeak through the publishing crucible, there’s no way it’d survive the mob mentality of modern art criticism intact.


2. "Beautiful You" by Chuck Palahniuk

I figured we might as well do two Palahniuk books up top. I know my audience. 

Beautiful You isn’t even that old, but based on reviews I’ve read, it’s not exactly appreciated in today’s world.

The problem is one of audiences.

Non-Palahniuk readers didn’t understand that Beautiful You doesn’t read like a typical Palahniuk book and that something unusual was going on here. Meanwhile, readers of Chuck Palahniuk didn’t necessarily read the works Beautiful You makes fun of (Twilight, 50 Shades of Grey, Clan of the Cave Bear, The Devil Wears Prada). And so, the tropes being mocked (the stereotypical roommate characters, the depictions of sex, the use of rape) didn’t connect with their origins.

I feel an author can only do parody like this today if they make it overly clear that their intent is to poke fun. Without a long-ass introduction in which Palahniuk would have to basically come out and say he was having a goof both stylistically and thematically (which wrecks the book), this book wouldn’t hit the shelves.


3. "Lolita" by Vladimir Nabokov

Although this one is perceived very differently by people who’ve actually read it, many are under the impression this book is simply the salacious tale of an older man with a much younger girl. And even those who read it can’t write a review without stating that, yes, what happens in the book is criminal and creepy and wrong. Thanks for the insight, you fine, upstanding citizens! Without the guidance of your moral light, golly, the rest of us would be totally lost!

I doubt that one could write this book today, let alone publish it, let alone see it become a classic. It’s always been taboo, but I think it’s too tough a sell these days. And although the opinions of people who haven’t read a book shouldn’t matter, mass opinion on a topic is more important today, regardless of expertise, and it has a huge platform. The mass perception of Lolita as pervy nonsense has bigger pull than the informed opinion of readers.


4. "Erasure" by Percival Everett

It took some guts to write and publish Erasure.

Erasure is the story of a literary-minded man whose agent says his books aren’t “black enough.” He watches his work go nowhere while another fictional book, We's Lives In Da Ghetto, skyrockets. So, this dude writes a super-exploitative novel called My Pafology (later changed to the simple Fuck), which takes off.

It’s an indictment of the world of black literature, from a fictional black man, but also from Everett, who doesn’t shy away from smack talking Push by Sapphire and Native Son by Richard Wright.

I feel like this book never got its due, but I think today it might never hit the shelves. While it’s an authentic, brutally funny book, it’s not pulling in the same direction as most of today’s social movements. Which I think is an important thing to do today, head in the same direction as everyone else.


5. "The Dirt" by Neil Strauss

While it was totally rad at the time, the joy of watching these dudes behave badly isn’t such a good look today. The Netflix version was a hit, but it was sanitized, and as stunning a book as The Dirt was on publication, dare I say that we’re all a bit more puritanical today?

80’s metal was all about decadence, over-the-top behavior, and seeking self-destruction through the destruction of others. The bar for “bad” celebrity behavior is a lot lower today. We’re ready to jump all over Beyonce for photoshopping a couple pics. Miley Cyrus got lambasted for twerking badly. We’re all warming up a seat in hell for Aunt Becky for bribing an institute of higher learning. Bad stuff, sure, but it’s got a very different flavor from rubbing egg burritos on your crotch to hide how often you’re cheating on your wife.


6. "House of Leaves" by Mark Z. Danielewski

Simply because of the cost and the necessity of it being in print. Taking a chance on a book this weird and costly to produce doesn’t seem like something many publishers are dying to do at this point. Every few years we’ll get an object book (Tree of Codes, S.), but I only see those becoming rarer and rarer as time goes on.

Unless you’re J.J. Abrams, I don’t know that you get a book that works exclusively in print anymore.


7. "The Green Mile" by Stephen King

Ah, the King book that spawned the famed “Magical Negro” comment from director Spike Lee (who, to be fair, was referencing the movie along with several others). There’s a definite momentum towards narratives that come from the cultural place they depict, and The Green Mile is off by a (Green) mile on that count.

I have my own opinions on King and what he’s been up to, and I also feel that the problem is rarely the individual pieces of art that present a problematic idea. It’s about the preponderance of things that commit the same crime.

That said, another way of looking at it is that you can get away with whatever, just make sure you’re first. Do the thing before everyone else copies it and before anyone notices, and you can get away with it. Publish The Green Mile in 2019? You’ve missed the wave.


8. "Frisk" by Dennis Cooper

I present the actual act of evil so it's visible and give it a bunch of facets so that you can actually look at it and experience it. You're seduced into dealing with it. ... So with Frisk, whatever pleasure you got out of making a picture in your mind based on ... those people being murdered, you take responsibility for it.

-Dennis Cooper

I like my shit fucked up, and Dennis Cooper definitely writes some fucked-up shit. I’ve read some reviews that think he plays with taboo just for the sake of doing so, but I totally disagree. He wrote a very underrated, very “normal” novella, God Jr., and his short story “Ugly Man” is a great showcase of the way he uses revulsion to get to something bigger and hard to reach.

A few years ago, Dennis Cooper was essentially cancelled when his blog, which represents the bulk of his creative work for the last several years, was shuttered after Google received complaints about it hosting child pornography. The claims were baseless, and fortunately Cooper had the means to get all his content back. It’s his opinion that the Google folks probably do this sort of thing all the time to people who don’t really have any ability or reason to fight back.

I just find it highly unlikely that a big publisher like Grove Atlantic would pick up something that flaunts taboo the way Cooper does today. If he’s getting shut down by Google for something he didn’t do, I can only imagine a modern publisher looking at his transgressive, violent, sexualized fiction and taking a hard pass.


9. "Sifting Through The Madness For The Word, The Line, The Way" by Charles Bukowski

I love the guy, but conversations about good taste go out the window when it comes to Bukowski.

I think Bukowski remains popular because people know what they're getting into with him. Super-talented? Yep. Rough around the edges? Absolutely. That's the point with Bukowski: beauty from an ugly place.

The question for today's readers: Would we spend enough time on our knees in the garbage to see the beauty show through? Is there as much room for works that are "really great, but..."?


10. "Geek Love" by Katherine Dunn

We certainly could make some assertions about people who are “freaks” also being Machiavellian and evil. But we don’t need to. The reason I couldn't see this published today? The branding. 

Chip Kidd’s intentionally ugly cover? And the alteration of the Knopf dog to give it a 5th leg? People are so brand-centric and brand-aware in 2019. We treat ourselves as brands. Being off-brand is a great sin in 2019, and creating something so repellent? Perish the thought.


11. "The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things" by J.T. Leroy

J.T. Leroy sold primarily on personality, not style or content, and I’m of the opinion that a J.T. Leroy type of hoax would be tough to pull off today. Laura Albert didn’t manage to hold it together too terribly long and she was working the system 20 years ago. I think the threads would come apart quickly in an age when people are infinitely more searchable. 

I also have to believe that publishers are a little more wary of what might seem like outrageous claims of circumstance, and I’m betting that after the whole James Frey debacle, most publishers aren’t jumping into publishing a totally outrageous story without doing a little checkin' first.

It's a plus/minus situation. It's for the best that people aren't being published under false pretenses, but damn did it make for some juicy stories. 


12. "2666" by Roberto Bolaño

Mostly because of its infamous 4th section, “The Part About The Crimes,” which is a painfully long set of descriptions of the murders of of women.

Again, I see why this exists, and I think most fans of Bolaño understand the section’s purpose and can get behind its execution. But, I have to wonder if alternative reads are stronger today and if readers would see Bolaño as reaching for something by standing on the corpses of dozens of women, who are mostly without personality and are introduced to us as victims. Fictional women, but dead, victimized women nonetheless. Would we accept a book that uses the gruesome deaths of so many women as props?


13. "Battle Royale" by Kousun Takami

Is a book depicting the violent, grindhouse-y kid-on-kid murder something anyone would have a taste for in this moment? 

The Hunger Games gets away with it because it’s ultimately a story of redemption and the disenfranchised seizing power. Battle Royale is a lot less empowering and a lot bloodier. If you’re not having fun watching these kids kill each other, you’re not getting the point of this one.

I can’t blame anyone for disliking the general idea, young people going after each other with weapons, poisons, and their bare hands. I just wonder whether Battle Royale would be able to maintain its position as a thrilling lark as opposed to feeling exploitative and icky.

"You're wrong, Pete. Dead wrong."

Am I? Tell me how. 

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jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like June 17, 2019 - 9:48pm

Are you asking if they would be published at all, or published by a Big Five company, or by the companies that first published them?

I bet lots of "problematic" stuff is published today, just more or less unnoticed or unmentioned.

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin June 18, 2019 - 1:53am

And damn, isn't it depressing how more and more it seems people are saying, "you can't write that!" This mob mentality of cancel culture and audience entitlement is a scary thing for any artist. Used to be writers could take risks that directors couldn't (so said Quentin Tarantino in a magazine interview at some point in the 90s, stating that directors wore shackles that authors didn't). And you have to wonder when it will stop - when will it encroach in to paintings and art?

Vanessa Gonzales's picture
Vanessa Gonzales June 18, 2019 - 11:25pm

It already encroaches on paintings and art. One example among many >> https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/apr/17/nude-donald-trump-painti...

jessmbaum's picture
jessmbaum from St. Louis, MO is reading The Infinite Game June 19, 2019 - 9:03am

We've hit a point where everyone is so uptight about demographics, ideologies, and the impact of stories that great literature is suffering. When we over-analyze art we demean and destroy it. Stories are sometimes meant to outrage, to anger, to display the destructive outcomes of certain behaviors. 

I always likened "Fight Club" to a modern day "Catcher in the Rye". But many people are too caught up in the literal to see the metaphors and THAT is why these books wouldn't be made. Audiences are losing their grasp of reality and how fantasy is not an escape, but a way to look at what is, through a different lens. 

Shawn Cosby's picture
Shawn Cosby June 19, 2019 - 11:37am

People who complain about books that can't be written today actually obscufate the issue. You can write whatever you want to just be prepared for people who weren't allowed to criticize the way they or people they know are characterized in your work to actually speak up What a list like this should be called is " Bookd that can be written but not without controversy."
I like most of the books on this list but let's not pretend that someone is knocking down your door and policing what you write. Cancel culture only affects your social media standing. Dan Mallory is still cashing checks,

voodoo_em's picture
voodoo_em from England is reading All the books by Ira Levin June 20, 2019 - 6:50am

Actually cancel culture, while yes for the most part affects social media standing, does have a further reaching effect when publishers start cancelling books out of fear of backlash, and author's themselves are stopping their own publications.