By Richard Warren
Some time ago a member of the Las Vegas Writers Group expressed concern that a book she was working on might be too controversial. It was a work of fiction where the male protagonist was a pedophile. It certainly was a sensitive topic but my response to her that no book is too controversial. The role of an artist is to provoke the mind, invite debate, and challenge the status quo and the norms of society. That is how we progress. That’s not to suggest that all writers are required to do so; for many the goal is simply to provide the reader with entertainment. However, the books that are memorable or stand the test of time tend to be those with a more powerful message.
Throughout history there are many writers who have made political or social statements in order to raise awareness of an issue or support a cause. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet “Common Sense” illuminated the reasons for the American colonies to break away from Great Britain. A short time later a number of English authors engaged in a spirited literary debate in the form of essays about the French Revolution. Richard Price, a Unitarian minister, wrote an essay in support of the revolt. This elicited a reply from English author Edmund Burke in support of the French Monarchy. The debate didn’t end there. Another author, Mary Wollstonecraft, published her rebuttal to Burke called “A Vindication of the Rights of Men” and Thomas Paine penned “Rights of Man” as his own response to Burke. These writers were the internet bloggers of their day.
Eight decades later Charles Dickens used the French Revolution as the backdrop for his novel A Tale of Two Cities. In other works he stirred controversy by creating characters that were oppressed by titans of industry. His novels were critiques of the social and economic conditions of the industrial age. These books are considered classics of the Victorian era and helped curb the abuses that were rampant in that period.
Many books have been deemed so controversial that they were banned for a time. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, and James Joyce’s Ulysses all shocked people in some way yet these books are now considered literary classics. Two decades ago Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses was considered such blasphemy by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini that he issued a fatwa that called for the author to be killed. In many countries authors risk death simply for writing what they feel they must.
Contemporary author Alissa Nutting, who received her Ph.D. from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, wrote a book that has been called “the most controversial book of summer” by numerous publications including The Guardian and The Huffington Post. Her novel Tampa explores the sexual relationship between a female teacher and her fourteen-year-old male student. Pedophilia is a sensitive topic to be sure, but discussing it in literature raises awareness of the issue. Since the book’s release in 2013 there have been numerous reports of female teachers molesting male students. Coincidence? Perhaps, but maybe the book’s controversial press brought the subject into the open and made people more sensitive to such situations.
Authors should never fear pushing the envelope and stirring the pot, they should embrace it.