Our friends at the American Library Association have set aside the last week of September each year as Banned Books Week, a celebration that “brings together the entire book community—librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types—in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.”
We’re celebrating by doing what we’ve done for decades: reading, engaging with, and publishing exciting books, even when the fearful and smaller-minded may prefer to declare them off-limits. The reasons for book bans vary: both Yan Lianke and the pseudonymous Bandi are banned by repressive governments — those of China and North Korea, respectively — that fear open expression of many kinds. In other cases, the reasoning may not be clear at all — besides a patina of intellectual “danger,” it’s anyone’s guess why Samuel Beckett’s epochal Waiting for Godot has been officially banned from the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. In 1961, when we published the first U.S. edition of Henry Miller’s now-revered Tropic of Cancer, which the author notoriously called “my scrofulous French novel on grey paper with blunt type,” we were sued more than sixty times. Our then-publisher, Barney Rosset (aptly remembered as, among other things, a tireless and fearless anti-censorship crusader) even faced criminal charges for conspiracy. First Amendment lawyer Charles Rembar headed the legal response, described by writer Felice Flanery Lewis as “a massive effort to assist every bookseller prosecuted, regardless of whether there was a legal obligation to do so,” and free speech ultimately prevailed in the courtroom, setting a precedent that has endured.
As a publisher, we’ve got banned books in our DNA. For 2022, here are a few of the challenged titles we’ve been enjoying:
Querelle by Jean Genet (translated from the French by Anselm Hollo)
Querelle is regarded by many critics as Jean Genet’s highest achievement in the novel–certainly one of the landmarks of postwar French literature. The story of a dangerous man seduced by danger, it deals in a startling way with the Dostoevskian theme of murder as an act of total liberation, and as a pact demanding an answering sacrifice.
“The purest and most austere enactment of those romantic situations that Genet’s envy of handsome young men caused him to return to again and again.”—Edmund White
Blood and Guts in High School by Kathy Acker
A masterpiece of surrealist fiction, steeped in controversy upon its first publication in 1984, Blood and Guts in High School is the book that established Kathy Acker as the preeminent voice of post-punk feminism. Fantastical, sensual, and fearlessly radical, this hallucinatory collage is both a comic and tragic portrait of erotic awakening.
“No writer I know is more audacious than Kathy Acker, whose anarchic wit drives a thoroughgoing attack on conventions and complacencies of all sorts. Not unlike Gertrude Stein in her day, Acker gives us a different way to look at the uses to which language is put.” —Lynne Tillman
Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (who also translated it from the French)
From an inauspicious beginning at the tiny Left Bank Théâtre de Babylone in 1953, followed by bewilderment among American and British audiences, Waiting for Godot has become one of the most important and enigmatic plays of the past fifty years and a cornerstone of twentieth-century drama. As Clive Barnes wrote, “Time catches up with genius. . . . Waiting for Godot is one of the masterpieces of the [twentieth] century.”
“Reading Beckett for the first time is an experience like no other in modern literature.”—Paul Auster
The Accusation by Bandi (translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith)
This collection of searing and heart-wrenching stories by an anonymous North Korean writer, who is still living in North Korea and whose manuscript was smuggled out to be published abroad, represents the first piece of dissident fiction to ever come out of the country. A vivid and frightening portrait of what it means to live in a completely closed-off society, and a heartbreaking yet hopeful portrayal of the humanity that persists even in such dire circumstances.
“This book emphasizes the value of an open society in which many voices can be heard—not just one authoritarian voice.”—Margaret Atwood
The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings by the Marquis de Sade (translated from the French by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse)
An exhaustive catalogue of sexual aberrations and the first systematic exploration of the psychology of sex, The 120 Days of Sodom was lost after the 1789 storming of the Bastille, where its famously incarcerated author had composed it in secret and hidden it away. It was later retrieved but remained unpublished until 1935.
“[Sade’s] chief interest for us lies not in his aberrations, but in the manner in which he assumed responsibility for them. He made of his sexuality an ethic; he expressed this ethic in works of literature. It is by this deliberate act that Sade attains a real originality.”—Simone de Beauvoir
Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller
Now hailed as an American classic, Henry Miller’s masterpiece was banned as obscene in this country for twenty-seven years after its first publication in Paris in 1934. Only a historic court ruling that changed American censorship standards, ushering in a new era of freedom and frankness in modern literature, permitted the publication of this first volume of Miller’s famed mixture of memoir and fiction, which chronicles with unapologetic gusto the bawdy adventures of a young expatriate writer, his friends, and the characters they meet in Paris in the 1930s.
“There is an eager vitality and exuberance to the writing which is exhilarating; a rush of spirit into the world as though all the sparkling wines have been uncorked at once; we watchfully hear the language skip, whoop and wheel across Miller’s page.”—William H. Gass
Hard Like Water by Yan Lianke (translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas)
From a visionary, world-class writer, dubbed “China’s most feted and most banned writer” by the Financial Times, Hard Like Water is a gripping and biting story of ambition and betrayal, following two young Communist revolutionaries whose forbidden love sets them apart from their traditionally minded village, as the Cultural Revolution sweeps the nation.
“At its core, Hard Like Water seeks to make a mockery of claims to political purity. As Hongmei and Aijun arouse each other with propaganda slogans and revolutionary citations, the novel pokes fun at how easily an ideology can be contorted to satisfy individual desires.”—Jennifer Wilson
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence
Lyric and sensual, D.H. Lawrence’s last novel is one of the major works of fiction of the twentieth century. Filled with scenes of intimate beauty, it explores the emotions of a lonely woman trapped in a sterile marriage and her growing love for the robust gamekeeper of her husband’s estate. It was banned in the U.S. for decades; this is the complete and unexpurgated Grove Press edition that created publishing history when it first appeared in 1959, after thirty-one years of suppression, and another legal victory helmed by Charles Rembar.
“Nobody concerned with the novel in our century can afford not to read it.”—Lawrence Durrell