Why Do People Think Scandalous Novels Couldn't Be Published Today?
Lolita, American Psycho, The Satanic Verses and the state of shocking literature
If you walk into any bookstore, you can find famously scandalous novels like Lolita, American Psycho, and The Satanic Verses on the shelves. These novels are in print—that is, still published—today. Yet somehow people regularly wonder…. could they be published today?
Dan Chiasson @dchiassoNabokov, Darwin, Maya Angelou and Mike Pence https://t.co/wKwoOXsPmo
Obviously I’m being snarky. Yes, you say, those exact three novels are still in print, but the argument is that a new novel like those novels would never be published today. The modern equivalent written today would be rejected by the “wokerti cancel culture readers” or scandal-averse corporate publishing. Or else modern authors would be too scared to ever write books that daring.
(Here I’ll state unequivocally that everything that happened to Rushdie after The Satanic Verses from Ayatollah Khomeini’s fatwa to the murder of the novel’s Japanese translator to this month’s horrific stabbing has been vile and contemptible. I hope for his quick recovery. To me, Rushdie is an example of real artistic courage and it’s offensive to watch people try to lump his attack in with J.K. Rowling, who may face online criticism yet is a billionaire living in a mansion who has never had to go into hiding or had a government put a death warrant on her head.)
Putting aside the horrific attack on Rushdie, what do people really mean when they say past scandalous books couldn’t be published today? As someone who rolls my eyes at the engagement farming tweeters who regularly “cancel” novels they read in high school, I certainly agree many have a paranoid reading style that looks for offense and expects moral purity from art. These people have a Puritan mindset and a fundamental misunderstandings of how fiction functions. Yet they also don’t have much power. It’s not like anyone is actually cancelling Catcher in the Rye no matter how many viral TikToks complain about it. What’s far more threatening is conservative politicians zealously banning books across the country. These Republicans are of course targeting marginalized authors, especially Black and LGBTQ ones, and using manufactured outrage to gain real political power. Not even Nobel prize winning literature is safe from conservatives quite literally trying to cancel culture. Glenn Youngkin won the Virginia governorship after a campaign that included a mother complaining her son was asked to read Toni Morrison in school. Anyone who thinks “woke tweeters” are a bigger threat to artistic expression than right wing politicians is living in a fantasy world.
Still, putting all that aside I find this debate interesting less for the claims about contemporary America and more for the assumptions about the past. Lolita, American Psycho, and The Satanic Verses were famously scandalous books in their own time. They were not the norm of publishing in the 1950s, 80s, or 90s. They’re famous exactly because they were exceptions. And also because they are quite good books, especially Lolita and The Satanic Verses.
Lolita is an especially odd choice for the “you could never publish this today!” claim because it really almost wasn’t published in its day. Nabokov initially failed to sell the novel in the United States. It was finally published in France in 1955 by a small publisher known for erotica and transgressive literature… and then immediately banned in France and the UK. After the book was an international scandal, it came out in America in 1958. (Despite Oates’s claim in the tweet above, Nabokov wasn’t unknown at the time. He’d received acclaim—and a National Book Award finalist spot—with 1957’s Pnin.)
Lolita was quite clearly an exception to the publishing of the 1950s, which was after all the era of McCarthyism and the Howl obscenity trial. Ginsberg and Nabokov, and their publishers like Ferlinghetti and Walter Minton, should be commended. But they shouldn’t be considered the norm of the era.
One could cite plenty of other examples. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer was banned until 1959. In 1961, Grove published it and faced lawsuits in 21 states. It took until 1964 and a Supreme Court decision for the novel to be freely published in the United States.
The Satanic Verses and American Psycho came out in eras of more artistic freedom, in the United States at least. The Satanic Verses was banned in some other countries and of course Rushdie had to go into hiding after the fatwa. This was awful, but an awkward fit for claims about the state of Anglo-American publishing or culture. Yet it was hardly the case that books like those were the norm. They wouldn’t have shocked if they were. (And we also shouldn’t pretend the 1980s and 1990s weren’t full of many of these same debates. The 1980s are, for example, when the PMRC got the US senate to hold hearings on “filthy” music corrupting the youth.)
What does it really mean to claim Lolita, American Psycho, and The Satanic Verses couldn’t be published today? I think most people making that claim—who aren’t simply contrarian trolls—are lamenting something else. Because for all the talk about “sensitivity readers” and “cancel culture,” it’s clear books like those are still published. Books with sexual abuse, gory violence, religious blasphemy and just about anything else considered taboo or controversial is published today by mainstream presses. It isn’t even rare for these books to be published to acclaim and attention. Think of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, or Ottessa Moshfegh’s recently released Lapvona. Or if you want more direct analogues, there are books like Alissa Nutting’s Tampa that was widely described as a gender-flipped Lolita.
Hell, for that matter both Ellis and (thankfully) Rushdie are still alive with novels forthcoming.
If people aren’t really lamenting that past scandalous books can’t be published today, what are they lamenting? Those who aren’t trolling are, I think, really longing for something different: not that those books couldn’t be published today, but that they are no longer scandalous.
American Psycho might have been a shocking satire of yuppie consumerism and American violence in the 1990s. It feels pretty tame today. Frankly, it felt mild in the 00s when I read it as a college student. How could it shock in an age when shows like You and Dexter are average TV fare? In 2022, most of us would be more surprised to find out a Wall Street bro was not a monster.
This isn’t the fault of American Psycho. It’s always hard for books to shock in different contexts. Is anyone scandalized by Dadaist art today, when its influence is everywhere? Could Elvis Presley’s hips cause a furor in 2022? Can The Monk scandalize the 21st century like it did the 18th? You can’t remove these scandals from their historical contexts.
Of course it’s not just that the culture’s standards for shock have changed. It’s also a question of literature’s declining space in the culture. Fewer people read books and novels command ever less of the cultural conversation. I mentioned Alissa Nutting’s “gender flipped Lolita” novel, Tampa—a sharp novel I’d recommend if you can stomach the subject matter—and that book did draw controversy. It seemed to receive only raves or pans and a few bookstores refused to carry it. But the response was nowhere near the level of Nabokov’s novel, which was both a runaway bestseller and also banned in multiple countries. Houellebecq is a feted (and sometimes interesting) author, but the cultural provocation of a novel just isn’t what it once was. Bret Easton Ellis is still trying his darnedest to provoke, but his last collection was less “shocking” than your average viral right wing podcast. He simply can’t keep up anymore. In general, it is hard for art to “freak out the squares” when the squares are cheering on billionaire politicians calling for violence against their political opponents.
As a novelist, I am tempted to romanticize eras when novels could produce both fame and scandal. But it’s good to remember that such books were always the very rare exception. The idea that “X couldn’t be published today!” is mostly backwards. Most of the work published right now would never have been published in, say, the 1950s. It would have been rejected either because what is tame to us today would be far too shocking then or because publishing was a narrower place where few who weren’t connected, wealthy white men could succeed. And even then you might be dragged in front of HUAC for having the wrong political opinions. Only a fantasy of the past could lead one to think that, say, the 1950s (!) was a time of artistic freedom we should want to return to.
And if you’re looking to freak out the squares, well, the best art is always born of a challenge. Show us what you’ve got.
As always, if you like this newsletter, please consider subscribing or checking out my recently released science fiction novel The Body Scout, which The New York Times called “Timeless and original…a wild ride, sad and funny, surreal and intelligent” and Boing Boing declared “a modern cyberpunk masterpiece.”
Counter Craft is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.