Too controversial?

by | May 24, 2007 | Writing Novels | 25 comments

Too controversial?

One of the very most common questions I receive is about whether agents are rejecting a work because it’s “too controversial.”

I’m always a bit mystified by this question. Since when is controversy a bad thing? Controversy = attention = curiosity = sales = have I told you lately that I love word math? Controversy can help a book rise up above the thousands of other books out there.

But most of the time when I’m asked this question, the author has either written a polemic or, very commonly, a speculative fiction novel that draws a straight line from the present to a horrific future. So, for instance, you have the post-global warming novel, the totalitarian president novel, the modern theocracy novel, the moral degradation novel, etc. These books are political (both right and left wing) and they express their politics very very clearly.

Setting aside the fact that an intensely political novel is turning off half of its potential audience, the problem isn’t that these types of novels are controversial, it’s that they’re not controversial at all. If you read the newspaper you’ll see plenty of doomsday scenarios about global warming, moral degradation, a powerful executive branch, etc. etc. etc. You’ll see op-eds on both sides. We’re gotten very used to these sorts of scary situations and inured to just about every political belief, and thus they’re not at all controversial.

The great speculative fiction novels that express a deep fear about the present (Oryx and Crake, 1984, Brave New World) or use a real doomsday scenario as a plot device (The Hot Zone, The Road, Paris Hilton’s Confessions of an Heiress) don’t come right out with their politics. They craft a wholly new world that centers the real fears and anxieties of characters, whatever their political inclinations. They make the worlds complex and nuanced and not at all straightforward.

Sure, Oryx and Crake has implications about wealth disparity and environmental degradation, 1984 has implications about totalitarian governments and Brave New World about drug dependency and eugenics. But all of these themes lurk beneath the surface and impact the lives of the characters, and the politics are secondary to the story. The authors tackle the issues in unexpected, counterintuitive and completely new ways.

So if you’re wondering if your novel is too controversial, you might to ask yourself the opposite question — is it original and thought-provoking enough to be controversial?

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Art: Demonstration on October 17, 1905 by Ilya Repin


  1. Stuart


    That’s not controversial. It’s straight horror! My heart jumped just reading the title.


    And good idea to allow us poor fools, er, writers to offer ourselves up as a teaching tool. 🙂 Thanks.

  2. Dave

    What on Earth could be too controversial? (Now don’t take that statement wrong, I do know what is distasteful and obnoxious.)
    I only ask after reading some of the political literature from either side that distorts, lies and mis-reasons all sorts of bad and terrible things about opponents. Take Michelle Malkin or Al Franken fir instance. Ot take the Rude Pundit and his blog and match him up to Ann Coulter.
    It’s hard to imagine any rhetoric harder than these pundits (I use the word loosely).
    Look at South Park, the cartoon – nothing, absolutely nothing is taboo there. The potty mouth little brats openly speak of the most vulgar and disgusting topics (I hide my head and laugh much to my shame).
    Look at tabloid news for the true depths of child molestation, torture, murder, hamster stomping, sexual oddities, and “that newborn creature has two heads or six legs” type of presentation.

    I sometimes think there is no limit. My faith in mankind was restored however when Judith Regan and OJ SImpson got bitch-slapped big time.

  3. Heidi the Hick

    Is my novel original and thought provoking enough to be controversial? Wow, what a great question!!

    It does involve teenagers doing illegal, potentially damaging things, which may seem controversial but isn’t really if you consider that it’s nothing new.

    Is it thought provoking? I think so. I’ll know for sure when I find some beta readers to run it through their B S filters…

    I still think I’m going to have a hard time selling it though. We’ll see…

    Nathan I think your query letter dissection offer is a great idea. Nothing like learning from mistakes, and sometimes some of us need to have our mistakes pointed out to us.

  4. Anonymous

    Talk about controversy! Nathan, you’re twisting things in my head. Now if I submit a query to you, I don’t know whether to hope you ask to see pages or hope you reject it because I might get to see it dissected it right here in River City. Things were so clear before…

  5. L.C.McCabe

    I can think of a few books that are “too controversial.”

    If I Did It by whats-his-name and packaged by Judith Regan.

    The Turner Diaries which is treated with reverence by the far right winged wackos in the country and served as inspiration for Timothy McVeigh.

    I also remember an art book from about fifteen years ago which had photographs of dead bodies. Page after page of corpses who had died violently. It made me sick just to look at the cover.

    To me, maybe it is more of a question of what is just beyond the pale for human decency.


    P.S. Remember you can always stir up an argument by mentioning The Anarchist’s Cookbook and whether it should be published or banned.

  6. Yuri

    I’d say there’s no such thing as too much controversy in this business. Controversy is good. Controversy is what provokes thought. Controversy is what makes people talk about the book. Controversy is simply what sells. That said, “too much controversy” is not an oxymoron. Usually it is used as a label for something else – for obscenity, for vulgarity, for distastefulness. Then indeed there’s too much of it. Sadly, in many cases this stuff sells even better…

    While we are on the subject of query letters, Nathan, I have a question for you. Every guideline out there urges authors to mention their publishing credits in the letter. In my situation, however, I’m not sure whether doing so would help or hurt. I have a novel that was published by a major publishing house and sold well and a dozen of short stories that appeared in different magazines. The problem is, all these works are in another language (Russian) and that major publishing house is in Russia too. Now as I start looking for an agent for my new novel written in English I don’t know whether mentioning my Russian publishing credits is a good thing. It may look positive (after all the process of writing and publishing a novel is still the same) or it may make an agent think, hmm… English as a second language, nah… I’ll pass regardless of the hook.

    Am I overanalyzing the potential reaction or it is indeed safer to leave non-English publishing credits out of the query letter altogether? Appreciate your advice.

  7. Anonymous

    What about less political controversy? I remember when Robin Schone’s first novel was rejected 30 times or so because it started out with a woman masturbating and apparently the agents thought that was too controversal for Romance readers. (This was in the nineties…)


  8. Bernita

    Too controversial?
    I know of one publisher who won’t touch a book unless it is controversial.

    • Anonymous

      Who? … Any interest in non-fiction controversy??

  9. Kim Stagliano

    Didn’t THE ROAD draw a line from the present to the horrific future? What was the difference that made that book stand out? I’m curious. Thanks.

  10. Nathan Bransford


    I think it’s fine mentioning your Russian publishing credits – it’s an interesting background.


    THE ROAD was never really very clear on what happened to cause the apocalypse (nuclear war? environmental disaster? comet?) so there never was an overt political message there. There’s a great deal of anxiety and paranoia and concern with basic humanity in the novel that perhaps speaks to our time, but it was never such a straight line.

  11. Anonymous

    I’m confused…. don’t we get to see the query?

  12. Nathan Bransford


    Sorry, I know my post was confusing vis a vis the query issue. I’m actually addressing the person’s question with this post, but I’m now offering for people to request query advice if they agree to have it on the blog.

  13. John Askins

    Interesting thoughts about controversy, but from your opening I was expecting to see a critique of a query vs. your response to the query author’s asking why the rejection, was it too controversial. I hope you will dissect queries from time to time, since I’m at that stage and writing the novel was easy compared to this.

  14. pixy

    Looking forward to those query letters. 🙂

  15. John Elder Robison

    Well, Nathan, one of the things I heard about my book is that it changes the way readers look at things, and makes them think.

    And it does that without invoking god, religion, or politics.

    They all told me, “books like that are rare.”

    I really had not considered that when I wrote it. But you’re right in that my book should not alienate any single large group of readers as some books do.

    I had not considered Look Me in the Eye to be controversail, but by your reckoning, maybe it is.

    We’ll see what the reviewers say, soon enough.

  16. DancesWithBlogs

    LOL exactly. I’m so glad I came across this blog!

    No it’s not too controversial, it’s one-sided and poorly written. I mean really…

  17. MT

    Mr. Bransford,

    What about religiously/theologically controversial literary fiction? Do you suppose that agents would generally shy away from representing those?

  18. kcoldiron

    You know, I’ve been wondering if that’s the problem with my own novel. It’s the farthest thing from being politically controversial, but it’s a romantic thriller involving incest that’s a lot like FLOWERS IN THE ATTIC. Since FITA has sold like a kajillion copies, I assumed agents/publishers would be interested. A couple dozen flings of the ol’ fishing pole later, no bites. So I’m starting to wonder if no one will touch an incest book, or if writing derivatives of bestsellers only gets book deals for Dan Brown imitators.

  19. Juice in LA

    Fair enough! But riddle me this Mr. Bransford: what if two agents have told you (after requests for full manuscript) that your work is "too controversial" and "at time inappropriate"?

    Other than querying Hunter S. Thompson's editors how do you find the fearless, brave agent?

  20. Erica

    Why oh why did I not find your blog until now? Well, hooray for finding it at all. Anyhow, I wonder how provocative my novel is… are blurred gender roles in a college aged relationship between a catholic (male) and an ex-juvenile delinquent (female) interesting? I'm not being cheeky, I'm serious. Are drugs, love, and ambivalence intriguing when that chaos is inside of the daughter of a wealthy Chicago family?

  21. David Kessler

    It depends in what way it's controversial. Many years ago I co-wrote a non-fiction book with about a murder case with the man who had been falsely accused of the murders. Although he had been officially acquitted, many people saw him as a guilty man who "beat the rap" and as a result of this, my publishers (who had published four of my thrillers) didn't want to touch it because of the ongoing controversy surrounding my co-author. I found that all the other mainstream publishers were similarly uninterested. In the end it was published by a small publisher that went bankrupt owing me money.

    Many years later, new breakthroughs in DNA technology led to the real murderer being identified. He had been named in the book and was already banged up for another, similar murder. But by then, my book was out of print and the publisher long gone.

  22. Anonymous


    "Hey, Pops, can you run that crucifixion thing by me again?"


           "First, I'm going to invent you, because I always wanted a son.

           "Then, I'm going to invent evil and temptation.

            "Next, I'm going to invent weak, defective things called humans, who will be tempted by evil, and become wicked."

    "Wait a second.  So far, it sounds like a failing grade in logic class.  Why do all that illogical, stupid stuff, Pops?"

           "It's more better than making everything loving and perfect.  That would be too boring."

          "So, here's the complicated part.   Your going to get crucified in a really painful way, so that the defective, wicked people, well, some of them, can get into heaven.  That heaven place is for another chapter."

    "But Pops, what's the connection between me getting me whipped and nailed to a post, and the wicked people getting a reward?  And the whipping part.  I heard some guy named Mel Gibson wants about 300 whippings.   Wouldn't two or three work?

    "And the nails.   Jeeze.  Couldn't you just have me pushed out of a tall building?  Why wouldn't that be good enough?"

           "Here's the good part, son.  You get buried and then come back to life three days later.  You might not smell so good, but you'd be back for the big resurrection show."

    "Wouldn't it be more special for those wicked people if I didn't come back up?  Wouldn't that be a better pitch, like a real sacrifice, not this pretend death idea of yours."

           "Don't worry, son.  I'm going to explain it all in a puzzle book.  I'll pretend I'm a talking donkey or a burning bush.  Then, if they don't believe me, they burn in hell.  That's another chapter, though."

    "Another question, pops.  What's the worst of all these evil things?"

           "Well, the worst would be if people don't buy into this story after reading the puzzle book."

    "That's worse than Hitler and the Crusades?  I'm going to go through the meat grinder because someone might not understand your idea of "love?"

    "So, when are you going to invent the word 'sadism,' Pops?"

    From"GOD, An Autobiography, translated by George Roberts,

    not too controversial?

  23. Mark Pine

    My story is completely true and it's as controversial as it gets. Dirty cops, people trying to kill me, etc. I'm trying to find a deal now. I have evidence for days and I'm located in NYC if anyone has ideas.



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Hi, I’m Nathan. I’m the author of How to Write a Novel and the Jacob Wonderbar series, which was published by Penguin. I used to be a literary agent at Curtis Brown Ltd. and I’m dedicated to helping authors chase their dreams. Let me help you with your book!

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