Naked Lunch

By Tracey Clarke

First published in 1959 by the provocative Olympia Press in France, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch (sometimes The Naked Lunch) provides a fractured account of American homosexual and drug cultures in the 1950s. One of the most radical novels of the 20th century, it was banned as ‘hard-core pornography’ by Customs after an imported copy was seized at Port Adelaide in February 1960.

Cover of 'The Naked Lunch'

Cover of The Naked Lunch, 1962 edition published by Corgi Books, London.
NAA: C3059, The Naked Lunch

Naked Lunch was first sent to the Literature Censorship Board in September 1963 after Clem Christesen, founder of the literary and cultural affairs journal Meanjin, made an application to import the novel under Regulation 4A of the Customs Act, which allowed prohibited literary books to be placed on restricted circulation.

The Board did not agree with the Customs Department’s decision to ban Naked Lunch as a pornographic work and recommended that Mr Christesen’s request be approved. However, the censors unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns concluded that ‘there is no need to note any particularly objectionable scene or passage for the book is so full of them and the general writing so extremely coarse that one need only consider the general character and tone’.

Chairman Kenneth Binn's report

Chairman Kenneth Binn’s report on ‘Naked Lunch’, 3 October 1963.
NAA: C4226, CG 71-6637

Another appeal for the book’s release came to the Board from the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Adelaide in 1967. Chairman ER Bryan described Naked Lunch as ‘one of the crudest books we have read in recent years’ but recommended the novel continue to be available to literary students and writers. ‘There is something to be said for letting some of them read him; it is possible that opinions might change after the experience’, he added.

Released in July 1973, Naked Lunch was one of the last literary works to remain on the prohibited list. Its release was prompted by Mr John Allen who wrote to Customs Minister Don Chipp in 1972. ‘Being well aware that book censorship has to some extent been liberalised during your present term of office,’ Mr Allen stated, ‘I am most perplexed that Burroughs’ work should still be unavailable here.’ The Board agreed to remove the ban on Naked Lunch, as well as two other titles by Burroughs, since ‘none of them [are] likely to be popular reading, [and] had already been on the list for some time’.

The next post will explore the banning of Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which shocked and amused readers with its frank treatment of sexuality. Banned from 1969 to 1971, this novel was the last work of fiction to be taken to court in Australia.

See more:

Customs file on Naked Lunch, 1960–1963

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