Throughout history, works of fiction have been censored, suppressed and banned by anxious authorities, including a number of novels from the Booker archives

Written by Donna Mackay-Smith

Publication date and time: Published

Removed. Censored. Banned. Burned. Erased. 

For almost as long as writers have put pen to paper, others have been attempting to suppress their written words.  

From the burning of books by Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in 213 BCE and the Roman emperor Caligula’s ban on Homer’s The Odyssey in 35 CE, to the Catholic Church’s condemnation of Galileo’s works in the 1600s and the 1859 banning of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species by Trinity College, Cambridge, his alma mater, acts of censorship have sought to control narratives, limit freedoms, and whitewash human history. These books dared to challenge the status quo; they contained subversive ideas, questioned authority, and risked dissent.  

In the 20th century, several classic novels have found themselves prohibited by governments around the world. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was banned in Australia and Ireland in the 1930s; Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead was banned in Canada in 1949; the Spanish-language translation of James Joyce’s Ulysses was banned in Spain until 1962. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was banned in China’s Hunan Province, where the government took exception to its portrayal of talking animals. Several Booker-nominated authors including Nadine Gordimer and Gabriel Garciá Márquez – and, more recently, Mohammed Hanif and Elif Shafak – have found themselves and their fiction on the wrong side of the censors and authorities. 

Today, the battle against censorship persists across the world. In 2023, Pen America, a non-profit that supports freedom of expression in literature, reported a 33% increase in book bans in American public schools. They recorded over 3,000 instances in classrooms and libraries, affecting 1,500 titles. These statistics, just a snapshot of a broader global pattern, illustrate an unsettling and continuing trend – and one to which many Booker Prize-nominated authors are no strangers.  

‘What is freedom of expression? Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist,’ once queried Salman Rushdie, the 1981 Booker Prize winner and seven-time nominated author, perhaps the most famously banned author in modern history. Here, in the spirit of Rushdie’s words, is a selection of works from the Booker Library that have boldly confronted these challenges. 

The Satanic Verses protests

Normal People by Sally Rooney

Longlisted for the Booker Prize in 2018, Sally Rooney’s will-they-won’t-they tale of Connell and Marianne’s relationship captured hearts across the world upon release. Selling millions of copies, it saw her hailed as ‘the first great millennial author’ by the Times and ‘Salinger for the Snapchat generation’ by others. It was quite simply, a publishing blockbuster. Despite this, the novel became a casualty of newly enacted legislation in Walton County, Florida when it found itself on a list of 58 titles targeted for removal from its public-school libraries in 2022. Many of the books on the list shared commonalities inclusive of sexual scenes, LGBTQ characters, or freedom of expression around gender. The move sparked criticism, with Suzanne Nossel, CEO of PEN America expressing concern, stating the bans ‘raise serious concerns in terms of constitutionality’ and ‘represent an affront to the role of our public schools as vital training grounds for democratic citizenship that instill a commitment to freedom of speech and thought’. Normal People has since faced a similar fate in Orange County, Florida in January 2024. Alongside 700 other books, it was removed from schools due to perceived violations of the state’s new laws banning materials with ‘sexual conduct’. 

Normal People by Sally Rooney

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

In Margaret Atwood’s now classic dystopian novel, environmental disasters and declining birthrates have led to a second American Civil War. A totalitarian regime enslaves the few remaining fertile women. The Handmaid’s Tale was shortlisted for the 1986 Booker Prize and has since become a powerful symbol of feminist resistance. Despite its impact, the novel often finds itself at the epicentre of political firestorms and has been banned in multiple countries such as Portugal and Spain, and by numerous school boards and libraries in the U.S. When writing the novel, Atwood drew inspiration from real-world events, yet the book has been cited as everything from anti-Christian to anti-Islamic, both highly sexualised and overly violent, and, according to the American Library Association, it is consistently among books most often challenged or banned in U.S. schools. Atwood, who defends her writing, describes the novel as ‘much less sexually explicit than the Bible’, and defined book bans as a sign of ‘totalitarianism’, echoing the messages within her work. In response to these challenges, in 2022 the author and her publisher, Penguin Random House, created a symbolic ‘unburnable’ edition of the novel specially made from fireproof materials. The book was auctioned, with proceeds going to PEN America. 

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie  

The most famous banned book of the past 50 years is Salman Rushdie’s 1998 novel The Satanic Verses, which as well as being shortlisted for the Booker Prize that year, ignited a global controversy which still shadows the author today. Labelled as blasphemous due to its portrayal of the life of the Prophet Muhammad and the Quran, the novel was promptly banned in Pakistan, India and several other countries across Asia, Africa and South America. The book triggered widespread unrest followed by mass protests by the Islamic community, with one demonstration in Pakistan resulting in the deaths of six people. Following the ban, Ayatollah Khomeini, Iran’s supreme leader at the time, issued a fatwā demanding the execution of both Rushdie and his publishers. The novelist was forced into hiding after threats to his life, with many others affected: the novel’s Italian translator was stabbed but survived; the book’s Japanese translator was attacked and died; and the Norwegian publisher was shot. Rushdie spent several years living under protection and to this day, the novel continues to be banned in many countries around the world. In 2022, Rushdie was attacked while giving a presentation in New York. He continues to advocate for free speech today.  

The Satanic Verses

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy  

Told against the backdrop of post-colonial India, The God of Small Things depicts the lives of twins Estha and Rahel, and the repercussions of a pivotal event in their young lives. Written with poetic prose and intricately plotted, the novel, which was Roy’s debut, won the 1997 Booker Prize and has been translated into over 40 languages. Roy’s new-found acclaim, however, came at a price. Summoned to her home state of Kerala in India, the author faced charges of obscenity over the book’s sexual content. The novel, which was also a searing critique of caste discrimination and hierarchies in India’s societal structures, was consequently banned. Roy’s continued anti-establishment stance has led her to be seen as a controversial figure in South Asian countries, yet she continues to be a vocal critic of governmental policies and social injustices in the region.  

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

Such a Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

Set in 1970s Bombay (now Mumbai), Rohinton Mistry’s debut novel takes place against the backdrop of political unrest in the Indian subcontinent. It documents the life of an ordinary man, Gustad Noble, who struggles to keep his family from falling into poverty. All the while, India is in political turmoil under the tenure of the country’s former prime minister Indira Gandhi. Such a Long Journey was shortlisted for the Booker in 1991 and was listed for, and won, many other awards. The novel was generally received positively until 2010, when a student at a Mumbai University deemed Mistry’s portrayal of India’s nationalist party unfair, which led to protests, threats towards the author and burnings of the novel. In response, the university’s faculty removed Such a Long Journey from the syllabus. In an open letter, Mistry expressed his ‘profound dismay’ at the ‘expeditious decision’, stating the university came ‘perilously close to institutionalising the ugly notion of self-censorship.’

Such A Long Journey by Rohinton Mistry

Schindler’s Ark by Thomas Keneally 

Thomas Keneally’s tale of risk and courage by one unlikely hero, Oskar Schindler, a serving member of the Nazi Party, who rescued thousands of Jews from certain death during the Second World War is undoubtedly one of history’s most remarkable stories. Based on the true accounts of those who survived, it won the Booker in 1982 and cemented Keneally’s place on the global literary stage. Professor John Carey, chair of the Booker Prize judges that year, commended Keneally for exercising ‘great tact and restraint in the presentation of its terrible story’. Yet upon release, the novel was banned in Lebanon for its ‘positive depiction of Jews’, a ban that persists to this day. Schindler’s List, the award-winning 1993 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg and based on Keneally’s research, encountered similar bans in countries across the world, for the same reason.  

Schindler's Ark by Thomas Keneally

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman 

Bringing the His Dark Materials series to a shattering conclusion, The Amber Spyglass became the first (and so far, only) children’s book nominated for the Booker Prize when it made the longlist in 2001. The novel traces the journey of a young girl named Lyra, who finds herself embroiled in a cosmic war within a multiverse. The trilogy, which contains many fantastical elements, was intended by Pullman as a commentary on the corruption of Church and State. Upon its release, the U.S. edition of The Amber Spyglass faced censorship with entire passages omitted from publication. Shortly after, Pullman told the Washington Post that he aimed to ‘undermine the basis of Christian belief’ with the story, sparking discontent among many organisations, with many fearing the anti-religious narrative within. As a result, in the period between 2000 and 2009, the trilogy ranked as the second most banned book in the U.S., according to the American Library Association.

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman