stack of bestsellers image
Rave Reviews: Bestselling Fiction in America
University of Virginia Library
stack of bestsellers image
Introduction to the Exhibit
The Taylor Collection of Popular American Fiction
Making the Bestseller List
Types of Bestsellers
Beyond the Book
Current Bestsellers
Readers Tell Their Stories
More on the Bestseller Phenomenon

Types of Bestsellers

Scandalous Books

Scandal and public outrage have earned many a book a place on the bestseller list. Curious readers, drawn to controversy, have made bestsellers out of a whole group of books. Author and publisher alike have recognized that scandal translates into sales. In 1885, when the Concord Public Library in Massachusetts banned Huckleberry Finn, labeling it as "trash and suitable only for the slums," Mark Twain wrote his publisher, "that will sell 25,000 copies of our book for sure."

Most of the books on display here owe their scandalous reputations to their sexual content, and over the years critics have sought to suppress them. However, treatments of religion, race, politics, and other issues of the day also have contributed to branding books controversial and outrageous. Official censorship of books in America came to a turning point with the court cases on Ulysses, Lady Chatterley's Lover, and Tropic of Cancer, and by the early 1960s, the courts no longer supported the practice. Nonetheless, from that time to this, citizens' groups and political and religious lobbies have continued to attack various popular but controversial books. Organizations have attempted to have books banned from a school's curriculum, withdrawn from public libraries, and deprived of public funding-but time and again, these works have found their way to an audience.


Taylor notebooks: v.17, entry on Strange Fruit


The subject of the most celebrated legal case on literary censorship, James Joyce's masterpiece came out in Paris in 1922. The novel was banned in the United States until 1933, when Judge John M. Woolsey delivered the verdict that it was not obscene. Random House published the American edition of Ulysses in 1934.


1922 (1934)
Joyce, James. Ulysses. Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922.
From the Tracy W. McGregor Library.


Privately printed by D. H. Lawrence in 1928, Lady Chatterley's Lover had to be smuggled into the United States until 1959. The decision to permit its publication emboldened Grove Press to bring out Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer a few years later.


1928 (1959)
Lawrence D[avid] H[erbert]. Lady Chatterley's Lover. N.p.: Privately printed, 1928


Published in 1934 in France, Henry Miller's autobiographical first novel, The Tropic of Cancer, was banned in the United States for nearly thirty years. Its obscenity trial, together with that of D. H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, was one in a series of legal cases that led up to MEMOIRS v. MASSACHUSETTS, 383 U.S. 413 in 1966. In this decision, sometimes called "the end of obscenity," the Supreme Court examined John Cleland's Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure, better known as Fanny Hill (1750). It ruled that "a book cannot be proscribed unless it is found to be utterly without redeeming social value. This is so even though the book is found to possess the requisite prurient appeal and to be patently offensive . . . the social values of the book can neither be weighed against nor canceled by its prurient appeal or patent offensiveness."


1934 (1961)
Miller, Henry. Tropic of Cancer. New York: Grove, 1961.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


Written by a white southern woman, Strange Fruit chronicles an interracial romance. The book was banned in Boston.


Smith, Lillian. Strange Fruit. New York: Reynal and Hitchcock, 1944.
From the Taylor Collection of American Bestsellers. Gift of Mrs. R. C. Taylor.


Originally published by Olympia Press, a Parisian publisher best known for pornography, Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita was banned in France but met with no objections from U.S. Customs. That newsworthy irony helped to bring the novel to the attention of American readers, and the book eventually rose to number three on the annual list for 1958.


1955 (1958)
Nabokov, Vladimir. Lolita. New York: Putnam, 1958.
From the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature.


This is the novel that provoked Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to declare a fatwa on Salman Rushdie, condemning him to death. While the fatwa was in place, the Japanese translator of The Satanic Verses was murdered, and Italian and Norwegian translators were wounded. Although he spent nine years in hiding, Salman Rushdie has continued to write.


Rushdie, Salman. The Satanic Verses. New York: Viking, 1989.

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