The Age of No Controversy


After my last column on required reading (and after leaving my newly purchased copy of Crime and Punishment on a plane), I decided to put my money were my mouth was and picked up a digital copy of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a novel I had tragically under-read when it was assigned to me in high school. While reading, I found myself wondering about the controversy Golding’s tale generated upon its release. Themes of man’s inherent inclination towards violence, individual welfare versus the common good, and the potential corrupting properties of religion were just beginning to be explored back in 1954, and Lord of the Flies remains one of the most frequently challenged books still taught in classrooms today.

Looking back, one can find a myriad of titles that caused a similar furor upon their release or inclusion in libraries and classrooms. Catcher in the Rye, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Lolita are all prime examples. Up to a certain point in history, it seemed that when novels were deemed shocking or controversial, it was almost always due to the thematic content of the work, and most often for overt political or social themes. The “controversy” that erupted out of a work of art knocked down established social and political mores, and forced the reader to think outside of their own experience.

While the attempted suppression of books is alive and well in the United States (the preferred nomenclature is “challenged books”, seeing as outright bans of material are quite rare), re-reading Golding’s classic made me stop and wonder: when was the last time a book caused such a public stir? I have to remind everyone of the fact that I am not a teacher or a librarian, and thus I am not clued in as to what books have over-protective parents in an uproar these days. I can, however, look back at a few books that garnered the attention of national news outlets recently, and while the controversy surrounding these titles is very real, rarely is it rooted in the potential for social change or radical thought that so many challenged titles of yesteryear were.

Off the top of my head, a few books spring to mind. Most recently: The Da Vinci Code and Twilight. The former seems to prove the old adage “controversy sells” correct, as Dan Brown had sold over 80 million copies of the novel as of 2009. Like many similar instances in the 21st century and beyond, The Da Vinci Code was considered “controversial” because it dared to offer alternative histories to those found in religious texts (a surefire way to get people talking, it seems. See The Satanic Verses and The Last Temptation of Christ). While the book was the toast of the town for a brief period, its star quickly fell, perhaps due to the fact that the film version, starring Tom Hanks, didn’t propel the book into the cult status of Stephanie Meyer’s vampire/werewolf/teen chastity romp.

The Twilight series—which, I must disclose, I haven’t read—has remained in the public consciousness since the first novel’s release in 2005, due in no small part to the runaway success of the films. Opinions about literary merit aside, what can’t be denied is the conversation surrounding Twilight: the argument over what this book says about gender roles and feminism has been going back and forth for some time. However, the paradigm presented by Meyer is decidedly regressive, which has made Twilight something of a unique phenomenon in that it’s been harangued both by conservatives (paranormal, the occult, teen sexuality, violence) and progressives (themes of feminine helplessness, unhealthy models for romantic relationships, etc).

James Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces was the subject of much controversy shortly after it's release, but once again this, didn't have much to do with the content of the book, even though it was what some might consider objectionable. Frey's tale recounted his years of drug and alcohol abuse, time spent in prison, and a general descent into depravity. However, when presented as a memoir, and a tale of overcoming adversity, it was lauded by none other than Oprah Winfrey and her famous book club. The uproar came when Frey was exposed as a fraud, someone who had exaggerated (and in some cases, completely fabricated) parts of his life in order to sell more books, and, arguably, to find a market in the always booming memoir trade (Frey later admitted that he had tried to sell A Million Little Pieces as fiction to numerous houses, but was rejected).

The Harry Potter books are barely worth mentioning, as the “controversy” surrounding their release was an irrational reaction by hypersensitive Christians who couldn’t deal with the fact that their children might be reading something that involved magic or wizards. None of the themes or narrative arcs of the novels were found to be objectionable, only the window-dressing. However, this undercuts a larger observation about the state of controversy in our modern world: we are no longer shocked and shaken up by books with challenging ideas and themes that force us to take another look at our lives and the world around us, or stare a different point of view straight in the face. Cynics might say that this is because we’re living in a sanitized generation that can’t deal with this sort of art, but I believe the truth is a bit more complicated.

We live in a world that is almost wholly interconnected. Over the last few decades, the area mankind has made the most incredible advancements in is access: for the price of a cup of coffee I can and will be exposed to a dizzying array of content from places across the globe. There have never been more opportunities for exposure to other modes of thinking and points of view. By sheer virtue of living, almost any given person is bombarded with diametrically opposed ideas on a daily basis. Fittingly, there have been two very different consequences of this: first, it has become harder, by and large, to shock people on an intellectual, rather than visceral level. In other words, people are no longer scared by ideas. Whether this is because people are generally becoming more intelligent or if technology has granted us the proper tools to increase our intellectual capacity (perhaps it’s both?) is for other, more qualified people to decide. 

The second consequence is less encouraging: while it’s become easier than ever to challenge and educate one’s self, it’s also infinitely easier to filter out content you may find objectionable on any level, as our incredible levels of access have led to increased specialization in media. If the lines of the culture war were drawn sometime post World War II, every beachhead had been established sometime between the late 1980s and mid to late 1990s. In the 2000s, adults are not typically forced to deal with popular art that doesn’t conform to however narrow-minded they want their worldview to be.

The upside of this factionalizing is that true challenges to art and media have been few and far between in recent memory. When confronted with the vast content dump that is the Internet, the average media consumer is going to stick with things that conform to their mode of thinking, that were recommended to them by like-minded people, and that seem to be in their political and moral “safe-zone”. When there is unlimited access to unlimited content, the potential for somebody to be outraged is drastically reduced, because they have a plethora of alternative options to choose from. The downside is that while this potential for challenge, censorship, et al has been decreased, so has the potential for debate and discussion. It’s not that literature or art itself has gotten less controversial, it’s that the audiences that are moved to pick up a book that might be challenging are probably not going to be challenged by it, and those that might benefit are going to stay mired in the realm of opinions that reinforce their own.

Of course, it would be unwise to overlook the possibility that this phenomenon is a direct result of the public’s gradual decreased interest in books and literature, at least when compared with other popular media such as film, video games, and music. Video games tend to generate great swathes of outraged pundits every few months or so. This is probably due to the fact that most people still consider this medium to be a realm devoted solely to children, despite all evidence to the contrary. Game developers have been targeted by politicians and family values groups time and again on the grounds that they are “selling violence to children”, an assertion which hinges on the incorrect assumption that the industry as a whole is supported almost entirely by people under the age of eighteen. Films, like video games, are visual, and thus subject to closer inspection by those who would like to decide what we as a public do and don’t need to consume. Music, while occasionally prompting outraged diatribes from parents or legislators, seems to have become less of a hot-button medium since the industry was scaled back greatly by the advent of file-sharing, et cetera. All these art forms seem to be scrutinized more closely than books, leading me to wonder: as go the masses, so go the censors?

What should we take away from all this? In the age of no controversy, is there any room for authors to be daring and still connect with a mass audience that has broken off into their own spheres of consumption?

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alisia's picture
alisia from Byron, NY is reading The Goldfinch by: Donna Tartt February 22, 2012 - 9:52am

Great article, but let's not call this the "age of no controversy," as that contradicts even what you've written. People do break into their groups, oft narrowminded, but there are still those who are varacious with reading, art and media and can oftentimes feel their view changed by the material. In my opinion, this happens more often than you may think. Not everyone read Lady Chatterley's Lover or Fahrenheit 451 when they were released, but enough people still read these books because they know they're not only good, but also important to reflect the time period and they're game changers. Their popularity is like a slow build, overtime like-minded well-read people came to agree with their content and they sparked controversy. There is a ton of that happening right now in the media, whether or not it's being transferred to books is beyond me, as the only non-fiction I read is biographies on those long dead and books about mass murders and I cannot think of a piece of modern fiction that really sparked a controversy internally or outwardly. An example of media based controversy is the fundamentalist group Westboro Baptist and the film Red State which is loosely based on the church's frightening behavior. 

I think this article has some really great thinking points, and has got my brain working today. It is some writer's focus to express their deep political/radical/future prospective/culture shocking opinions masked into their writing so that when the person reading it figures it out, they change in some way. Maybe we, as society, need to be more open to the opinions of others. This should be an exercise in writing. Write a piece of fiction and try to make its underlying theme something that needs to change or has changed for the worse about society and then see if your readers don't change. The ability to change is still there, but other media forms deliver it faster if they're able to deliver it at all. I read this great article on Cracked that talks about human nature and why we refuse to aknowledge one another's opinions.

Renee Miller's picture
Renee Miller from Tweed, Ontario is reading The Wolf Gift February 22, 2012 - 9:52am

Interesting questions, and great article. I often wonder if it's possible to truly shock readers anymore. I've come to the conclusion that we can still offend or shock smallish groups of people, but small groups usually don't have enough steam to generate the controversy that sells books like the DaVinci Code or Lord of the Flies (I'm still trying to get my daughter to read that one) If you tackle religion or sexuality in YA fiction, you're almost guaranteed a stir, although it probably won't be that major these days. We're all so sick of most of the idiots who call for banning or burning that most parents don't pay attention anymore. 

In adult fiction, it's more difficult. If you're writing purely for shock value, it will be obvious and therefore ineffective. Personally, I'd rather see books written with guts, and tackling subjects that most people are uncomfortable with. Child abuse, domestic violence, and crime, for example, are often shown with black and white imagery. The abuser or criminal is bad, victim is pitiful, and justice is served. I'd like to see more books, both adult and YA that show the multi-colored reality of things like this.

TheLazyWriter's picture
TheLazyWriter from Western Maryland is reading Rebecca Coleman's The Kingdom of Childhood February 22, 2012 - 11:47am

Renee, I agree with you completely. I recently read the book Kingdom of Childhood, by Rebecca Coleman. The protaganist is a kindergarten teacher who begins an affair with a teenage student. Though it only recently came out, it's already generating controversy and interest. It's an extremely uncomfortable book to read.

I really think that's the key to unlocking "controversial" topics--making the reader uncomfortable. Athough we're exposed to different ideas and concepts, the majority of people still see the world in black and white. Of course, we have the cliche "bad boy with a good heart" standards, but there is a shortage of books (and other entertainment) that explore those hot topics without falling into cliche.

jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like February 22, 2012 - 1:29pm

I think people who like being exposed to new things are already accustomed to "shock."  And people who don't like new ideas for the most part don't care enough to discover anything which might shock them.  

Emily Louise Church's picture
Emily Louise Church from London, UK is reading God Hates Us All February 22, 2012 - 1:31pm

I think it's still possible to shock people through the medium of literature, but it's so widely accessible now that the truly shocking writers (and the truly talented ones) get lost in the wilderness.

Renee Miller's picture
Renee Miller from Tweed, Ontario is reading The Wolf Gift February 22, 2012 - 2:43pm

@TheLazyWriter: "but there is a shortage of books (and other entertainment) that explore those hot topics without falling into cliche." This, I think is a big reason we aren't seeing much controversy. It's ruined because very few can accomplish a controversial novel without slipping into that icky mess.

J.Y. and Emily make excellent points too. It's tough to stir feelings in a society so desensitized to everything. But I think it's possible to make even the most jaded and insensitive reader squirm a bit, piss them off a little maybe, or make them take a good close look in the mirror (no one likes to do that) and accomplish a controversial best seller. It takes a special kind of writer to do that, but I don't think we've lost all hope in seeing these books. 

And thanks for sharing that book, LazyWriter (I feel weird typing that name). it's on my "to be read asap" list.  


Keith's picture
Keith from Phoenix, AZ is reading Growing Up Dead in Texas by Stephen Graham Jones February 23, 2012 - 7:38am

I think the one thing you have to remember is that we're very early into the new century and the "controversial" (i.e. innovative) authors have yet to emerge. There is no Henry Miller, Hemingway, Joyce, Wolff, Keruoac, Vonnegut, or Salinger yet. Give it another ten years or so.

L.W. Flouisa's picture
L.W. Flouisa from Tennessee is reading More Murakami June 23, 2014 - 2:09pm

I don't understand the rational of book banning. I understand it, but I don't agree with it. It just creates more sales for the author.

Now if only we can get hyper-sensitive people about wizards to grow a pair.

HakaungaMaxwell's picture
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