We writers like to moan about how difficult the writing life is: the uncertain and sporadic income, the faltering market, the isolation, the impossible odds. And yet, it's probably safe to say that very few of us - at least here in the Western world -- have faced the kind of adversity that the following writers endured in their day, when their work was banned and burned and confiscated and altered beyond recognition and literally put on trial for its life - and when the writers themselves (and their publishers, and even the shopkeepers who dared to sell their books) faced criminal charges.
I feel fortunate to count many provocative writers within my circle of friends -- and yet none of us have penned a book from a debtor's prison, only to be re-arrested upon its publication because of its content (as John Cleland was). I know of no one consigned to an insane asylum for having written incendiary fiction (as was the Marquis de Sade). Not one of us has had the experience of Anne Desclos, whose book suffered a publicity ban for many years in her native France -- despite having won a prestigious national literary prize there. And none of my western contemporaries have had a book censored - as D.H. Lawrence did -- to the point that its abridged version lost all continuity and coherence.
Each of these authors had singular vision, and yet they all had this in common: the driving imperative to say what they needed to say, and the fortitude to withstand whatever the world brought down upon them in response.
I believe that all of us who are writing now - and even all of us who read! - owe these writers a profound debt, one that can never be paid back but only carried forward like a torch. Yes, the writing life has its hardships. But today, at least on our own shores, censorship and confiscation and obscenity charges aren't among them. And to a considerable extent, we have them to thank for that.
"Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure" (also known as "Fanny Hill") was penned by John Cleland from a debtor's prison in London in 1748. Cleland was re-arrested the following year for "corrupting the King's subjects" with this tale of debauchery and sexual adventure narrated by the character of Frances Hill, a former prostitute. The book was withdrawn from circulation but pirated editions continued to enjoy a thriving readership underground. After making its way to the United States, it was the subject of an obscenity trial in Massachusetts - where it prevailed - as recently as 1966.
"The 120 Days of Sodom" was written in 1785 by Donatien Alphonse Francois, better known as the Marquis De Sade, or The Divine Marquis. The novel depicts an exhaustive catalogue of sexual extremity and sadism: orgies, prostitution, incest, the rape of children, sex with nuns, urine drinking, coprophagia, flogging, genital mutilation, brutal torture and mass murder. In 1801, in response to his books, he was imprisoned at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte; upon his family's intervention two years later, he was declared insane and moved to the asylum at Charenton, where he remained until his death in 1814. The word "sadism" is derived from his surname.
James Joyce's rollicking epic "Ulysses" was first published in serial form, from 1918-1920, by a Greenwich Village-based literary magazine called The Little Review. The publication ran into trouble with its printing of the 13th chapter, entitled "Nausicaa," due to its use of profanity and depiction of masturbation. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice waged a successful campaign to keep it out of the United States (a decision not reversed until 1933). New York postal officials seized and burned hundreds of copies of the magazine. During its 11-year ban, the book was smuggled into the country and sold at high prices by bootleggers.
"Lady Chatterley's Lover," a novel by D.H. Lawrence, was first published privately in Florence, Italy in 1928. It tells the story of a high-society woman - an aristocrat's wife - who takes a lower-class man (the gamekeeper on the couple's estate) as her lover. It garnered instant infamy for its graphic descriptions of adulterous sex and its inclusion of unprintable words. It was the subject of obscenity trials in Britain, Japan, and India; it was banned in the United States and Canada. Australia had the unique distinction of banning not only the novel itself, but the book written about its obscenity trial in Britain.
French journalist Anne Desclos wrote "The Story of O" (under the pen name of Pauline Reage) in 1954 as an offering to her employer and long-time lover, the publisher Jean Paulhan, who admired the writing of the Marquis De Sade. At the outset of the novel, the young woman O is brought by her lover to the chateau of Roissy, where she is initiated into the sexual service of its fraternity of dominant men. Despite winning a top French literary prize, the novel incurred obscenity charges and suffered a publicity ban for many years. Toward the end of her long life, Desclos said of the book: "It was written by a stranger I am astonished to have been."
Vladimir Nabokov's "Lolita" is narrated by Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man addled with lust for his 12-year-old stepdaughter, whom he beds during the course of the book. In 1955, in the London Sunday Times, Graham Greene declared the novel among the best three books of the year. In response, editor John Gordon of the London Sunday Express, countered that it was "the filthiest book [he had] ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography." Upon its publication in the U.S. three years later -- despite being deemed "repulsive" and "disgusting" by the New York Times - "Lolita" sold 100,000 copies during its first month on the market.
Henry Miller's "The Tropic of Cancer" chronicles the sexual adventures of a young American writer in Paris in the 1930s, during the height of bohemian culture. The book's narrator consorts with whores, pimps and artists with equal abandon and in graphic detail. When Grove Press published the American edition in 1961, more than 60 obscenity lawsuits, nationwide, were filed against booksellers who carried it. Publisher Barney Rossett made it his mission to legally assist each bookseller facing prosecution. For its legal victory, the novel has been described in The New York Times Book Review as responsible for the "free speech that we now take for granted in literature."
Elissa Wald is the author of "The Secret Lives of Married Women," out now.