We’ve written before about some of the most controversial novels in history, but today we here at Goliath are taking a look at some of the most incendiary authors of all time and where they fall in the grand spectrum of critical acclaim; after all, it’s fascinating to think on how an author may be revered by one critic and disowned by the next, adored by one academic and easily dismissed by another. We’re interested in where people find merit in the written word, and today we’re going to take a look at a list of authors who some love, and others merely love to hate. These are 10 incendiary authors who consistently divide critics, and we are truly excited to be taking a look at some of the iconic figures on this list in a little more detail.
10. James Frey
Much of the controversy surrounding author James Frey has little do with what the author actually put down on the page. After all, it’s somewhat accepted that his first novel, A Million Little Pieces, is a solid (if unspectacular) creative endeavor that showed a promising young talent ready to contribute to the literary world. The controversy, then, stems from Frey’s initial insistence that A Million Little Pieces be classified and marketed not as fiction, but rather as a memoir. This insistence proved to be a monumental mistake after it was discovered that large portions of A Million Little Pieces had been created by the author to supplement the small elements of the story that were true, and Frey was publicly denounced (very publicly, as his appearance on Oprah Winfrey’s show to discuss the novel was, in a word, devastating) before later moving to label the novel “semi-fictional.”
9. Hunter S. Thompson
Now here’s a man who knows the true meaning of controversy, and in more ways than one. Hunter Thompson, the notorious gonzo journalist whose works consistently toe the line between fact, fiction and everything in between, is a writer who has managed to divide critics in numerous ways since he first began publishing articles and novels way back in the early 1960s. A man who is simultaneously revered and reviled by critics, Thompson has been lambasted as a “hack” and “madman” by some who see little merit in the author’s works, some of the more famous of which are Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels. Others, however, see the crazed journalist as a purveyor of truth, one of the few individuals insane enough to see through the lies and advertising of the 21st century and offer a legitimate critique of the social forces which seek to demonize, democratize and otherwise suppress the individual freedom of the subjects who make up the bulk of society. Thompson, who is only now beginning to be studied in academic circles, will no doubt continue to divide critics for decades to come.
8. Chuck Palahniuk
Chuck Palahniuk is one of the more famous authors of the last 20-odd years. The author of acclaimed works like Fight Club, Survivor, and Choke has made a mint selling stories of “transgressional fiction” (as he has labelled them), stories that focus on marginalized or disenfranchised individuals who react to their isolation in self-destructive and problematic ways. Palahniuk, who has attracted a massive following among readers but has received a much less acclaimed response from critics and academics, represents a classic divide between what is deemed popular and what is deemed good. In fact, many have asked whether it’s possible to be both, and for a brief time before his most recent detour into “contemporary horror,” Palahniuk seemed a man capable of bridging the divide. Recently, however, academics have struggled to find merit in the works of this nihilistic author, with Fight Club being the only one of his works to truly gain traction in the critical world (even then, the movie is superior to the book and is often the more studied of the two).
7. Henry Miller
It’s difficult to fit everything about Henry Miller into one small blurb, as the prolific and incendiary author did his best to distance himself from convention in just about every way possible. A controversial author whose works were universally banned in America until 1961, Miller’s most famous novels include Tropic of Cancer and Black Spring and contain many of the stylistic and thematic tendencies for which he became known. Miller wrote in a semi-autobiographical manner, and his works dealt with explicit topics like sex, language, race and social relations, all while maintaining an aura of rebellion and disinterest that has earned him a spot among history’s most notorious writers. Miller, whose works seem to contain both merit and filth in equal measure, is studied in some university curriculums but is unsurprisingly absent from those on more conservative campuses, many of whom find his wildly inappropriate romps to be more suitable for garbage cans than reading lists.
6. D.H. Lawrence
History has been kind to D.H. Lawrence, the English author, playwright, essayist and poet who made a name for himself with novels like Lady Chatterley’s Lover, once labelled the finest written piece of pornography in England. A man harshly opposed to the systems of modernity and industrialization, Lawrence carried with him an unscrupulous reputation during his life; however, after his death, more attention was given to his works, at which point is was decided that he was more or less one of the greatest writers of his generation, and not the purveyor of controversial and pornographic material that most had been led to believe. Lawrence, whose work is still divisive on occasion due to its graphic content (although it hardly seems graphic now, given where we’re at culturally and historically), also wrote notable works like Women in Love and John Thomas and Lady Jane, which, along with Lady Chatterley’s Lover, are now commonly accepted elements of the Western canon.
5. William Burroughs
Want to land yourself on a list of divisive writers? Write about drugs. Dying to be on there? Write about sex. Really striving towards controversy? Write about drugs and sex in the most experimental way possible, and then tell the critics to go to hell when they don’t understand what you’ve done. That about sums up William Burroughs, the wildly influential author whose literary works include Naked Lunch, a novel that still divides critics today. A spiritual precursor to the Beat Generation, which included the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs was a snarly, well-read badass who spent the majority of his literary career taking the piss out of those elements of society he deemed malicious, manipulative or just downright stupid. His works often deal with drugs, sexuality and death and are usually non-traditional in their structure and narrative, with Naked Lunch being the one most people point to when attempting to distill Burroughs down to a single experience.
4. Jane Austen
We’ve written before about Jane Austen and the controversy surrounding her place in the Western canon. Some feel as though she’s earned a spot there with both her enduring popularity and her ability to communicate the intricacies of Victorian era social structure and relations, while others feel as though she deserves to be kept from the canon for those very same reasons (also, she’s not a particularly talented writer, unlike some of the more well established female members of the Western canon, a la Virginia Woolf). Austen, whose works have garnered praise and contempt in equal measure since their release, remains a controversial figure in literature due to both her writing and her gender. Her role as one of the preeminent females in the Western canon renders her subject to absurd amounts of both praise and scrutiny, and her value as an author seems to vary wildly from person to person.
3. Bret Easton Ellis
Bret Easton Ellis has been causing a fuss in the literary scene since he published his first novel, Less Than Zero, at the astoundingly young age of 21. A bleak, nihilistic take on growing up in the vapid basin of Los Angeles, California, Less Than Zero was nothing but an appetizer for the real controversy that would define Ellis’s career, that being the publication of his now-infamous tome American Psycho. One of the few novels still routinely banned in various places around the world, American Psycho has divided the critical base of academia since its publication; some read it and see nothing but a vile, vain expression of psychopathic tendencies, and others see a brilliant satire meant to comment on the insanity that is contemporary adult life. Funny how literature works, isn’t it?
2. Ayn Rand
Known as much for her philosophical belief system of Objectivism (loosely put, it’s a system that advocates for individuality and self-reason at all costs, suggesting this is the most rational and therefore best approach to living) as she is for the two famous novels in which she detailed this system, Ayn Rand is without a doubt one of the most divisive figures in the history of literature. Those two novels, The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged, have accumulated heaps of praise and scorn since the dates of their publications, and many still argue passionately about whether Rand has a place in contemporary literature or whether she should be banished to the forgotten annals of history.
1. Charles Bukowski
In some ways, Charles Bukowski is reminiscent of the aforementioned Henry Miller. They were both alcoholic, lecherous and occasionally mean-spirited individuals who made a living writing stories of women, boozing and male malaise; they also both happen to be incredibly insightful individuals who can spout off nothing but filth for two hundred pages before absolutely flooring a reader with a paragraph or two of untold insight into what it is to be a human. Bukowski, who didn’t publish his first novel until well into his forties, remains one of the most critically divisive figures in literary history, for many of the reasons listed above. Are two paragraphs of gorgeous insight into the human condition enough to justify sorting through the life of a troubled man? It’s a question readers need to ask themselves before picking up a novel by this incendiary author.