By Amy Lay
Anthony Burgess, author of the dystopian classic A Clockwork Orange considered Philip Roth’s breakout novel Portnoy’s Complaint to be ‘more than a novel… it is a genuine piece of contemporary American folklore’. He called it one of the funniest books he’d ever read.
Australia’s Department of Customs and the National Literature Board of Review didn’t agree. Published in January 1969, Portnoy’s Complaint had grabbed the attention of the literary world for its provocative portrayal of Jewish-American culture, obsessive masturbation and sexual frustrations. On 31 March 1969 the National Literature Board of Review deemed it ‘obscene,’ ‘filthy’, and entirely inappropriate for Australian readers.
The book’s notoriety kept it in the headlines. Roth’s book was a departure from his previous work and was causing a stir in American and European literary circles. Christopher Wordsworth, writing for The Guardian, claimed that ‘far from being offensive, it is positively and humanly endearing’. It was recognised for its satire of post-World War II idealism in America.
In Australia, even reviews of Portnoy’s Complaint were targeted by the censor. A volume of New American Review was prohibited by Customs because it contained an excerpt from the novel. Private imports of the book were also confiscated. A dermatologist in Toowoomba was furious when the book, sent by his daughter living in America, found its way into government censors’ hands in January 1970. He described the confiscation as ‘pettifogging, obscurantist and achieving nothing’.
Labelling it ‘obscene’ was what stuck in the craw of Roth’s critics. His narrator and everyman, Alexander Portnoy, unabashedly describes his sexual proclivities to his psychiatrist in vivid detail, including a scene where he takes liberties with a piece of liver. There was certainly some support in the public for the decision to ban: a disgruntled viewer of This Day Tonight (which interviewed the British publisher of Portnoy’s Complaint) wrote to the ABC in 1969 that ‘Those who do no[t] agree [with the ban] are the irresponsible, the alcoholics, perverts and morons’.
In July 1970, Penguin Books Australia challenged the Commonwealth ban on imports of Portnoy’s Complaint by gaining rights to publish the novel locally. John Michie, head of Penguin Books Australia, sent a telegram to the Customs Minister Don Chipp to request a meeting to discuss publication. The Minister informed Penguin Books that it would become a matter for the states if the book was locally published and Cabinet minutes indicate that he intended to alert state governments to their concerns.
In August 1970, when Penguin published a run of Portnoy’s Complaint, 414 copies were confiscated by New South Wales police. Conversely, South Australia allowed restricted distribution and sales of the book. Minister Chipp was disappointed with the South Australian decision, and admitted ‘…the whole concept of uniform literature censorship requires urgent reappraisal’.
Western Australia also allowed restricted sales of the book after a complaint against a Perth bookseller was thrown out of court in January 1971. During the trial, all literary experts who were polled — including Australian Nobel Prize winner Patrick White — agreed that Portnoy’s Complaint was a work of literary merit. According to the Indecent Publications Act in WA, works of artistic, scientific or literary merit could not be prohibited.
By June 1971, Portnoy’s Complaint was available in WA, SA, NSW and the ACT. Don Chipp recognised the futility of the book remaining on the prohibited list, and on 17 June the ban on imported copies of Portnoy’s Complaint was lifted. Only Tasmania persisted with a ban, and sales were restricted around Australia only to those over the age of 18.
Portnoy’s Complaint was the last book taken to court over its ban. Perhaps because of its notoriety, the title is now used as a euphemism for any kind of sexual malaise and is firmly implanted in the public consciousness.
Customs file on Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969–1972.