Controversial Best-Sellers Of The 20th Century

In the 20th century, artists moved away from creating work that could be considered by the public as generically beautiful or agreeable, and rather sought to draw the individual into their work by making them question its meaning and its value. Similarly, novels of the 20th century ceased to tell socially acceptable stories that mostly ended with some sort of resolution.

Many modern classics draw the reader in and challenge them with scenarios that evoke feelings of unease and even disgust. This meant that while some critics immediately saw the excellence and value within them, others (especially members of the public) were often outraged by the content.

Here are two famous examples:

The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye

JD Salinger’s 1951 masterpiece in a relatively small oeuvre captures the restless and brooding nature of a young American adolescent boy after being expelled from several schools. The tone of the book is not only exceptionally dark, but also manages to evoke within the reader a similar dissatisfaction towards society and adulthood that the young man feels.

It became an instant cult hit with young people and was at one stage the second most prescribed book in US schools. By the 1970s, however, parents were more outraged than impressed by its content. It contains a great deal of blasphemy and freely refers to casual sex and prostitution. The book was banned in several countries and in many schools in the US, which, of course, only made it more attractive for young people to read. It has sold approximately 65 million copies

The novel became even more notorious after John Lennon’s murderer (Mark David Chapman) was found reading it when the police arrived at the scene of the murder. When asked for a statement Chapman only replied that the novel is his statement. During his sentencing hearing, Chapman only spoke in court once and chose to read a quote from the novel rather than explain his actions.  Psychiatrists testified that Chapman was delusional and obsessed with the book. They explained that he identified with the loneliness the main character felt and sought to commit a murder to attain fame and notoriety.



This classic novel by Vladimir Nabokov was ladled with controversy when it was first published.  The story is about a stepfather (Humbert) who finds his twelve year old stepdaughter (Lolita) irresistibly attractive, and pursues his fantasies with her after her mother dies and she is entrusted to his care. He entices and bribes her to perform sexual favours whilst threatening her with abandonment if she told anyone.

The story tells only Humbert’s side of the story and follows his moods from excitement to guilt and fear. Even though all references to sex or lust were only implied and never described, the book was condemned by many for its taboo and erotic subject matter. It was banned in both the UK and France for two years after initial publication, and its teaching at college level is still delicately approached today. The novel has sold approximately 50 million copies to date.

Louisa Theart writes for House of Publishers, a publishing directory and writing resource for writers of all levels.

Leave a Reply