When people think of writers, they’ll most likely think of J.K.Rowling, Stephenie Meyers, and maybe Terry Pratchett. If they’re into the classics, they’ll mention the Jane Austen, F.Scott Fitzgerald, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But what of the lesser known writers that changed not just the literary world, but the whole world? Just how many of us know what D.H.Lawrence or Allen Ginsberg did for us, purely from doing what they do best – writing?
D.H.Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”
This book isn’t particularly well known anymore, but if you speak to your parents, or perhaps your grandparents, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. They might blush a little, and change the subject, too. It may be just a book, but the contents of said book is what got it banned in several countries, including the United Kingdom. Anyone who wanted to read it had to have it imported from France, but if anyone suspected the parcel might contain the book inside, they were allowed to open the parcel and stop you from ever receiving it.
All because of sex.
You see, here in the UK we have laws about what can and can’t be published, and back in the late 1950s/early 1960s, those laws were far stricter than they are now. I’ve heard people describe the world as being “black and white” back then, and it wasn’t until events like those in this article that things began to change.
The publishers of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Penguin, were taken to court using the Obscene Publications Act, which states that a piece of work can get away with using words such as “fuck” or even “cunt”, if the work is “of literary merit”. The prosecution set to prove that there was no literary merit in the book, but, after a nearly two week trial, they failed, and the book was allowed to be published.
It became the biggest seller of 1961 in the UK, even outselling the bible. People queued around the streets to buy it, and it was the ultimate talking point of the year.
It wasn’t the only piece of writing that caused an obscenity trial, however…
Mary-Ann Evans, Charlotte Brontë, Emily Brontë and Ann Brontë
Each of the women listed above wrote using a male pen name (George Eliot, Currer Bell, Ellis Bell and Acton Bell, respectively), and they each chose it for the same reason: they wanted to be taken seriously. They felt that in using a male pseudonym people would be less likely to expect them to write light-hearted romances or compare their work with such pieces. The Brontës intentionally chose gender-neutral names that began with the same first initial as their actual name, and Eliot also wanted to cover up the events of her private life, which included a twenty-year affair with a married man.
Gradually it was revealed that they were women, but their work was still taken seriously, and still is nearly two hundred years later, having been turned into films numerous times and studied by students from all over the world.
Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”
Howl is a poem that talks about Ginsberg and some of his sexual encounters. It’s a long poem, but if you ever have the time, it’s worth reading (or listening to). There’s nothing quite like hearing the person who wrote a poem read their own creation, but I digress.
The poem talks about sex (both heterosexual and homosexual), drugs, and everything that the beat generation was known for in unapologetic detail, and this is something that caused its publishers to be sent to trial in America in 1957. Ginsberg himself refused to go to the trial, stating that it had nothing to do with him, as it wasn’t him that was on trial. The story of the trial is told in the 2009 film “Howl”, starring James Franco. Each of the excuses as to why the poem is obscene become increasingly ridiculous, to the point where those from prosecution were made to look like fools. It most likely did not play out how it did in the film, but the outcome is the same: the poem was allowed to be published, and is now one of the most popular works of the beat generation, along with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs.
If these pieces of literature had never been written, would we be allowed to swear are freely as we can be now? Would shows such as Spartacus, Skins or Sex and the City have been allowed to have been conceived, let alone to have become as popular and mainstream as they have?
Perhaps someone else may have written something similar, but we can never know for sure, and we can never know if the outcome of the trials had been the same. So next time you find yourself cursing, watching a film with a naked actor in, or reading a book with a sex scene in, think of D.H.Lawrence and Allen Ginsberg, because it’s thanks to them that those things are acceptable now.