Forever Amber

By Tracey Clarke

American author Kathleen Winsor’s notorious bestselling bodice-ripper Forever Amber tells the story of Amber St Clare, a peasant-class, illiterate woman who uses her wits and beauty to climb to the heights of King’s mistress in 17th-century Restoration England. Three million copies of Forever Amber sold after its publication in November 1944 and the novel became a blockbuster in 16 countries.

Cover of banned book

Cover of Forever Amber, 1945 English edition published by The Modern Publishing Company.
NAA: C3059, Forever Amber

Import embargoes on American fiction prevented the US edition of Forever Amber from being brought into Australia, beyond individual copies sent by post or brought in travellers’ luggage. However, reviews and publicity for Forever Amber that had reached Australia fuelled widespread interest in the novel.

Concern that a Hollywood film adaptation of Forever Amber, which was announced before the book was released, and publication of an English edition with minimal excisions to the first edition would stimulate further demand, prompted Customs to forward a copy to the Literature Censorship Board in May 1945 for urgent review.

Copy of letter

Letter from Comptroller-General JJ Kennedy to Chairman of the Literature Censorship Board, LH Allen, noting that Customs was ‘being pressed for a decision’ about Forever Amber.
NAA: A3023, Folder 1945/1947

Owing to the length of the novel at more than 900 pages, only the Board’s chairman, LH Allen, wrote a comprehensive report. Allen dismissed Forever Amber’s enormous sales, stating that ‘popularity is no sure guarantee of worth’. ‘The source of [the novel’s] notoriety is more properly to be found in a crude and obvious appeal to the sexual instinct’, he added.

Allen’s two-page summary, completed on 5 June 1945, criticised the novel for lacking literary merit and over-emphasising sex. ‘There is no eminence in the writing. Powerful, pointed, or delicate phrasing is missing’, he wrote. Citing pages that highlighted the book’s offending passages, including those that dealt with sex, impotence and abortion, Allen concluded the book was too obscene for Australian readers. The other two board members, Kenneth Binns and JFM Haydon, concurred with Allen’s assessment.

Customs Minister Senator Richard Keane agreed with the Board, publicly stating, ‘The Almighty did not give the people eyes to read that kind of rubbish’. The ban also applied to the expurgated English edition.

Copy of Binns' report

After reading 248 pages in addition to those marked by Allen, Kenneth Binns concluded ‘that in many places [Forever Amber] is so bawdy as to be classified as indecent’.
NAA: A3023, Folder 1945/1947

An unsuccessful appeal to release Forever Amber by the book’s British publisher in 1953 maintained that the novel was ‘a descriptive masterpiece of authentic historical detail’ with ‘no modern foul language [and] no pornography’. Sir Robert Garran, who was appointed as the first Appeal Censor in 1937, upheld the Board’s original decision:

The Board’s view and my view of this book was that it had no particular literary merit, but was mainly a collection of bawdiness, amounting to sex obsession, and with little appeal apart from that … I see no reason to vary the previous recommendation.

Copy of Garran's report

Garran’s 1953 report on Forever Amber as Appeal Censor.
NAA: C4419, Whole Series

Kathleen Winsor was aged 24 when Forever Amber, her first novel, was published. When she learned the Australian Government banned the book she retorted, ‘I don’t care whether Senator Keane likes my book or not’. ‘Apparently he does not like English history’, she added. ‘I don’t make English history. The English did it first. I only wrote about it.’

Forever Amber was removed from the Commonwealth list of prohibited imports in 1958 following the first review of banned books since Federation.

See more:

Reports by the Literature Censorship Board (pages 15-30), 1945

Garran’s report as Appeal Censor (pages 191-93), 1953


By Amy Lay

A Russian author, writing an American novel, published in France and banned in Australia: Lolita created a global stir that reverberated through the second half of the 20th century.

NAA: C3059, Lolita

NAA: C3059, Lolita

Vladimir Nabokov, the Russian émigré, lived in the north-east United States and wrote his novel Lolita while travelling on butterfly-collection trips around America. He had already published nine Russian language novels, having been raised trilingual in tsarist Russia. Minor members of the nobility, his family fled Russia after the Bolshevik revolution and eventually settled in America after a period in western Europe.

After completing the novel Nabokov sought an American publisher, but was met with uncertainty from publishers, mainly due to the novel’s controversial content. Instead, Nabokov found a willing publisher in Paris; however he was unaware at the time that Olympia Press was mostly known for publishing pornographic pulp novels.

Despite the French publisher, the novel was banned in France in 1955. It was banned in Australia the same year, and was heatedly discussed in British Parliament as well, after Graham Greene named it one of the best novels of the year. A copy was detained by Customs in Sydney in 1957, a year before the book was published in New York.

Memorandum, 16 November 1957. NAA: B13, 1964/5367

Memorandum, 16 November 1957.
NAA: B13, 1964/5367

The Lolita ban was reviewed in 1959 by request of British publishers Weidenfeld and Nicolson. By 1959, the book had been published in the US, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Japan and had been recognised for its literary merit. Despite the publisher’s claim that the cost of 26/- would price most regular readers out of the market and leave Lolita as a work of high-brow readership, the ban remained.

Page 1, letter from Hutchison & Co Publishers, 1 December 1959. NAA:  B13, 1964/5367

Page 1, letter from Hutchison & Co Publishers, 1 December 1959.
NAA: B13, 1964/5367

Page 2, letter from Hutchison & Co Publishers, 1 December, 1959. NAA:  B13, 1964/5367

Page 2, letter from Hutchison & Co Publishers, 1 December 1959.
NAA: B13, 1964/5367

Lolita’s prohibition was not seriously challenged again until 1964. The book was set as required reading for a course on American literature by Dr Bob Brissenden at the Australian National University. There was an explosion of interest in Lolita, from the media, the government, and the public.

Letter from 'members of the teaching profession' to Senator Henty, 1 March, 1964. NAA: A425, 1964/5354

Letter from ‘members of the teaching profession’ to Senator Henty, 1 March 1964.
NAA: A425, 1964/5354

This put Customs and the government in an unusual position – if the request for study was approved, then any other university could potentially place banned books on its reading lists and reasonably expect to be allowed to import them.

Letter from MHR Kim Beazley to Senator Henty, 24 March 1964. NAA: A425, 1964/5354

Letter from MHR Kim Beazley to Senator Henty, 24 March 1964.
NAA: A425, 1964/5354

Dr Brissenden argued ‘the ban on a book, which has been applauded elsewhere, is detrimental to a study of literature to Australian students’. The university proposed that the book would only be available to a group of about 30 students aged 17–18 years old, and even then only in tutorials and in the library under supervision.

Newspaper cutting from the West Australian, 21 February, 1964. NAA: A425, 1964/5354

Newspaper cutting from the West Australian, 21 February 1964.
NAA: A425, 1964/5354

The Liberal and Country Party State Council disagreed with the book’s inclusion on a university reading list. One member wondered why students should not study books such as the Bible, or works by Milton, Shakespeare and Dickens; despite the course being American literature. This objection was ridiculed by the Herald newspaper in Melbourne, labelling the council a group of ‘rather pompous busybodies’.

Newspaper cuttings from The Sun and The Age, 28 February 1964. NAA: B13, 1964/5367

Newspaper cuttings from The Sun and The Age, 28 February 1964.
NAA: B13, 1964/5367

Dr Brissenden’s request was denied and he was not allowed to import Lolita.

In 1965, Dr BR Elliott at the University of Adelaide had his own copy of Lolita seized at Customs after attempting to import it to ‘round off’ his personal library. Elliot was appalled by number of hoops through which he would have to jump to have the book returned, and refused to complete the requisite forms for release. In the end, the forms were unnecessary: on 21 July the ban on Lolita was lifted.

Minute Paper, 14 April 1965. NAA: D737, 1964/5367

Minute Paper, 14 April 1965.
NAA: D737, 1964/5367

Despite lifting the ban, it appears the Australian Government wasn’t completely convinced. The 1997 film was held for two years before it was released in Australia in 1999, over 40 years since the original ban on the novel.

See more:

Prohibited publication – ‘Lolita’, 1957-65

Decision for ‘Lolita’, 1958-64

Representations and press cuttings – application for ‘Lolita’, 1964

Prohibited publications – seizure of ‘Lolita’ (Port Adelaide), 1965

Another Country

By Tracey Clarke

James Baldwin’s provocative novel Another Country explores the intersection of race, gender and sexuality in the United States in the mid-1950s. Taking more than 13 years to write, the novel became a bestseller after it was published in 1962.

Front cover of 'Another Country'

Cover of Another Country, published by The Dial Press, New York, 1962.
NAA: C3059, Another Country

In August that year the Commonwealth Customs Department seized a copy of the book imported into the country by Danish-born author Irene M Summy. Without seeking advice from the Literature Censorship Board, Customs deemed it a prohibited import six months later.

The Board, which provided a report on Another Country in May 1963, found that the novel presented ‘important and difficult censorship problems’. Although it agreed Baldwin was ‘one of America’s leading writers’ and that his ‘writing is imaginative and sensitive’, it considered his novel was ‘continually smeared with indecent, offensive and dirty epithets and allusions’.

The Board resolved that Baldwin had ‘a message and a reasoned point of view’ on race relations and was particularly concerned that a ban on his novel would damage Australia’s international reputation. In one of five conclusions reached after considerable discussion and consultation, Chairman Kenneth Binns wrote:

Race segregation and the colour question has become such an acute political issue that a ban on “Another Country” might even be associated with Australia’s misunderstood “White Australia” policy and her refusal to support UN condemnation of South African Apartheid.

Since the Board believed Another Country would not ‘corrupt Australian readers for it is too long, too involved and … too expensive for the average novel reader’, it did not agree to the ‘total banning of this significant book’. Instead, it recommended that the novel be made available to ‘the serious minded student or reader’.

The Literature Censorship Board’s view was reinforced two months later by the Appeal Censor, Dr LH Allen, who noted:

As long as genuine students of literature have ready access to the book I do not believe that Australia’s cultural standards will suffer.

Copy of Literature Censorship Board's report

The five conclusions reached by the Board.
NAA: C4419, Whole Series

The banning of Another Country was met with widespread protest. In an open letter to Customs Minister Senator Denham Henty published in the Australian Book Review in June 1963, Geoffrey Dutton, Rosemary Wighton and Max Harris echoed the Board’s concerns that Australia’s image overseas would be damaged. They wrote:

The banning of “Another Country” is very likely to be interpreted as an act of colour and racial prejudice on the part of Australia, and to be interpreted in an anti-Australian way by Asian students and newspapers, by Communist powers, and by liberal racial forces in the U.S.A.

In a review published in the literary and cultural journal Overland, poet and playwright Laurence Collinson wrote that there was ‘nothing in “Another Country” … in the way of language or description, that has not its equivalent in a dozen or so unbanned novels’. Also criticising the practice of censorship in general, he wondered whether the ‘censors select their books by the method of random sampling’.

The prohibiting of Another Country did not prevent Australians from reading the novel. It was common for banned books to pass through Customs without being detained for examination, highlighting the futility of book censorship practices. Several months after receiving notification of the ban from Customs, Irene Summy opened a package containing a copy of Another Country sent by the book’s publishers after they learnt of her difficulties.

Copy of seizure notice sent to Gough Whitlam.

Not everyone was successful. Gough Whitlam, then leader of the opposition Labor Party, had his copy seized by Customs in 1964.
NAA; A425, 1964/1234

Another Country was removed from the prohibited list following intense pressure and a review of banned titles in May 1966.

See more:

Reviews submitted to Dr LH Allen, Appeal Censor and Chairman, Literature Censorship Board (pages 204-14), 1963

Prohibited publication – ‘Another Country’ seizure (Mr G Whitlam), 1964

Peyton Place

By Tracey Clarke

In September 1956 Peyton Place burst onto the American scene as the country’s most controversial novel. Published at a time when small towns were seen as America’s moral compass, the ‘explosive best seller’ exposed the seamy side of northern New England town life with its exploration of illicit sex, abortion, incest and murder. Author Grace Metalious, a young housewife who based the novel on several towns she had known, was dismissed by critics for producing ‘literary sewage’ and shunned by her town folk for writing so frankly on taboo subjects.

NAA; C3059, Peyton Place 2

Cover of Peyton Place, 1957 paperback edition published by Dell.
NAA: C3059, Peyton Place 2

In May 1957 the Literature Censorship Board recommended the release of an expurgated edition of Peyton Place, published by London firm Frederick Muller earlier that year. During the 1950s it was common for British publishers to pre-censor American novels in an effort to avoid Australian censorship. Known as ‘Australian Editions’, expurgated copies were released quickly and frequently arrived on Australian shores before the original editions.

With many of the offending passages removed, the Board argued that the scenes of sex, violence and ‘bestial behaviour’ in Peyton Place had a credible place in the story. Derek Scales, who was appointed to the Board in 1954, described the novel as ‘a work of absorbing interest and of considerable literary value’. ‘There are some crudities of speech’, he added, ‘but these are only such as one would expect from the characters uttering them’.

Derek Scales' report on Peyton Place. NAA: A3023, 1957

Derek Scales’ report on Peyton Place.
NAA: A3023, 1957

Chairman LH Allen agreed, providing a favourable two-page review of Metalious’s genuine portrayal of life in a ‘narrow and isolated’ town. ‘There are, of course, exposures of cupboard skeletons which are bound to exist in any community, but there is sincerity in the closing words of the tale which represent life, despite its sins and errors, as fine and splendid.’ Allen concluded that ‘the book is not pernicious, and, if read in the proper light, is instructive’.

One of the book’s ugliest situations is the raping of 16-year-old Selena Cross by Lucas Cross, her drunkard step-father. Allen felt that the town’s physician, Dr Swain, who performs an illegal abortion out of sympathy for Selena and then risks his professional reputation by revealing the truth after she is accused of murdering Lucas, ‘commands admiration’. As does Selena, who is ‘prepared to hang rather than betray the doctor’s secret’.

The Board’s decision to release Peyton Place was not unanimous. A dissenting view came from Deputy Chairman Kenneth Binns who felt the novel’s ‘profanity and obscene expressions’ were excessive. ‘It is unfortunate that Mrs Metalious is so flustered with sex’, he wrote, ‘for she often writes well’.

Kenneth Binns' report on Peyton Place. NAA: A3023, 1957

Kenneth Binns’ recommendation that Peyton Place be banned.
NAA: A3023, 1957

Comptroller General FA Meere also disagreed with the majority opinion and in May 1957 wrote to Customs Minister Denham Henty requesting that he overrule the Board’s recommendation. Meere argued that the Board placed too much importance on the book’s literary merit. ‘I feel that the question of prohibition must be determined on a judgment as to whether the book is indecent or whether it unduly emphasises sex, irrespective of whether the book is well or badly written.’

In the end, Henty upheld the Board’s decision. However, six months later, on 6 December 1957, the original Dell edition of Peyton Place was placed on the banned list, remaining there until 11 February 1971. It was the book’s sexual passages, rather than its handling of taboo subjects, that concerned the censors.

Copy of Peyton Place with references to 'sex pages'. NAA: C3059, Peyton Place 2

Copy of Peyton Place original edition with references to ‘sex’ pages.
NAA: C3059, Peyton Place 2

Peyton Place became one of the most widely read novels ever published in the United States. More than 12 million copies in paperback were sold, and it sat on The New York Times bestseller list for 59 weeks. In 1958 it surpassed Gone with the Wind to become the top-selling novel of all time, a position it held for nearly 20 years.

By the time the novel came to the attention of the Australian censors in 1957, it was being adapted for the silver screen. This was followed by a sequel to the novel (1959), a sequel to the film (1961) and a long-running television series (1964–69). Such was the immense popularity of Peyton Place that its title became shorthand for any small town accused of harbouring a scandal.

Grace Metalious

Dust-jacket photograph of Grace Metalious. Captioned ‘Pandora in Blue Jeans’, it remains the most famous photograph taken of the author.
Photographer: Larry Smith

The legacy of Peyton Place in popular culture far exceeded the tumultuous and short life of its author. Grace Metalious, who struggled with her new-found notoriety, died in 1964 of cirrhosis, at age 39.

See more:

Reports by the Literature Censorship Board (pages 24–29), 1957

Prohibited publications – ‘Peyton Place’ (copy seized at Port Adelaide), 1962

Prohibited publication – ‘Peyton Place’ (German edition seized at Port Adelaide), 1965–66

Brave New World

By Amy Lay

Aldous Huxley does not write ‘literature,’ nor has he ever been guilty of any idea likely to be of the least value. He belongs to the school of ‘bad, naughty little boys’ of which G. B. Shaw and our own Norman Lindsay are such distinguished members. This school is not so anxious to teach as to shock…

–          Anonymous contributor to the Daily Telegraph, 18 February 1933


Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chatto & Windus, London, 1932 NAA: C3059, Brave New World

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, Chatto & Windus, London, 1932
NAA: C3059, Brave New World

Aldous Huxley’s most well-known novel is a work of savage satire where the populace is continually high on a government-provided drug, non-monogamous sex is encouraged and the concept of the nuclear family is taboo. In the ‘World State’, babies are decanted from test tubes and their lives are predestined by their label or ‘caste’. Outside of this ‘perfect’ World State are tribes of ‘savages’ in which humans reproduce and develop as nature intended.

Brave New World was published in 1932 by Chatto and Windus, London and was named a prohibited import on 12 October of that year. Only one other nation also banned Brave New World; Ireland missed the irony central to the novel to label it anti-religion, anti-family, and extremely blasphemous. Meanwhile, the novel was freely available in the United Kingdom and the United States, from where several Australian booksellers attempted to import it.

As simple as that. NAA: A425, 1937/9526

As simple as that.
NAA: A425, 1937/9526

The title of Brave New World is borrowed from Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Naïve Miranda, raised on a desert island, exclaims, ‘How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t’, when she first encounters people other than her own family. In an article titled ‘The Man Who Hates God’, the London-based Sunday Pictorial slavishly outlines Huxley’s ironic title from the Shakespeare quote. ‘There are no “goodly creatures” in it. In it mankind is not “beauteous”. It is loathsome.’

Huxley was highly educated with interests in both science and literature. When Brave New World was published, he had already written four novels dealing with philosophy and ethical dilemmas. Huxley wrote Brave New World in response to the optimistic futurism of his contemporaries such as HG Wells, however reviews of the novel were mixed. According to the Sunday Pictorial, Brave New World had to be ‘read to be retched over’.

Australia’s importation ban was supported with great gusto by church-related associations and temperance movements. Upon learning of the ban, Rev George A Judkins, Director of the Social Services Department of the Methodist Church wrote to Customs Minister TW White in 1933 to declare his organisation’s agreement with the ban, stating his organisation ‘entertain[s] that nothing will be done to remove the ban’. In his return correspondence, Minister White confidently replies that the Reverend may ‘rest assured that the prohibition will not be lifted’.

Letter from George A. Judkins to Minister for Customs H. E. White, 20th January 1933. NAA: A425, 1937/9526

Letter from George A. Judkins to Minister for Customs H. E. White, 20th January 1933.
NAA: A425, 1937/9526

In another case, the wife of the resident Bishop of Thursday Island wrote to support the ban and recall of the book from the island’s public library, ‘in the interests of the simple and unsofisticated [sic] young people who subscribe to the Library and are residents of this Island’. In fact several copies of Brave New World were smuggled out of the Thursday Island library, and though the mayor promised Customs he would return them upon their discovery, the copies never made it back to Canberra.

Those on both sides of the debate wrote impassioned letters to the Customs Minister. Mr Alfred Thodey of Camberwell wrote to register an ‘emphatic protest’ against the ban. “Oh, Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!” Mr Thodey scrawls down the side of his letter, which names the ban an ‘unwarrantable interference’. Most incendiary to the conservative ideals of the day, Mr Thodey even compares the themes and ‘filthy lewd stories’ of Brave New World to the ‘so-called “Holy” Bible’.

Letter from Alfred Thodey to the Assistant Minister for Customs, 24 January 1933. NAA: A452, 1937/9526

Letter from Alfred Thodey to the Assistant Minister for Customs, 24 January 1933.
NAA: A452, 1937/9526

Publishers and librarians also expressed their displeasure over the ban. Chatto and Windus, the London publishers of Brave New World wrote to Minister White in July 1933, requesting that the book be submitted to the newly-formed literary censorship board and the ban be reconsidered. The publishers pointed out that Brave New World had circulated widely in the United Kingdom without incident and had garnered a generally positive reception. If Huxley had not bred subversion and evil elsewhere in the world, why should Australia expect a different result?

Australian libraries and universities were asked to return their copies of the novel to Customs for destruction in 1933. The Perth Literary Institute protested about having to return their copies, and demanded to know the details of the prohibition before handing anything over. When libraries asked for their copies back after the ban ended in 1937, often all they got in reply was a short form letter informing them of the fiery destruction of their copies in the government furnaces.

Memorandum, 27 August 1937. NAA: A425, 1937/9526

Memorandum, 27 August 1937.
NAA: A425, 1937/9526

Brave New World was only removed from the banned list after the book passed the desk of a member of the Literature Censorship Board in 1937. An Appeal Censor had been finally appointed, and agreed upon its release. A sexually permissive culture did not follow, nor did a seditious and morally bankrupt one. Ernest Hemingway’s Farewell to Arms and James Joyce’s Ulysses were released the same year; it was a brave new world for Australia’s literary public.

See more:

Customs file on Brave New World, 1932-37

File kept by Australian Customs Service, South Australia on Brave New World, 1933-35

Portnoy’s Complaint

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.


Cover of Portnoy’s Complaint, Lowe and Brydone Limited, London, 1969.
NAA: C3059, Portnoy’s Complaint print 3

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.

Recommendation on Portnoy's Complaint from H.C. Chipman of the National Literary Board of Review, 3 May, 1969. NAA: A425, 72/4378

Recommendation on Portnoy’s Complaint from H.C. Chipman of the National Literary Board of Review, 3 May, 1969.
NAA: A425, 72/4378

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’.

Letter from Dr. Leigh Wallman to Minister Don Chipp, in protest of the seizure of his copy of Portnoy's Complaint, 29 January 1970. NAA: A425, 72/4378

Letter from Dr. Leigh Wallman to Minister Don Chipp, in protest of the seizure of his copy of Portnoy’s Complaint, 29 January 1970.
NAA: A425, 72/4378

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.

Minister for Customs Don Chipp's discussion points for his meeting with John Michie from Penguin Books Australia, 29 July 1970. NAA: A425, 72/4378

Minister for Customs Don Chipp’s discussion points for his meeting with John Michie from Penguin Books Australia, 29 July 1970.
NAA: A425, 72/4378

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.

Press clippings from the Daily News, 18 January 1971. NAA: A425, 72/4378

Press clippings from the Daily News, 18 January 1971.
NAA: A425, 72/4378

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.

See more:

Customs file on Portnoy’s Complaint, 1969–1972.


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


By Tracey Clarke

Described as one of the most radical Australian books written during the interwar years, JM Harcourt’s Upsurge was the first novel to be regarded as both obscene and seditious by the censors. Portraying the lives of Western Australia’s working class during the Depression, it was published in London in early 1934.

Cover of ‘Upsurge’, 1934 edition published by John Long, Limited. NAA: C3059, Upsurge

Cover of Upsurge, 1934 edition published by John Long, Limited.
NAA: C3059, Upsurge

Its arrival in Australia provoked controversy. A review in the West Australian in June 1934 remarked:

It would be hard to imagine a more thoroughly unpleasant set of people than are found in the pages of Mr. Harcourt’s immature narrative of “petting parties”, shop girls’ strikes, street-rioting – in which the police are made to behave like a lot of Bashi-Bazooks – Communist agitators, crude caricatures of magistrates and business magnates – the whole extra-ordinary conglomeration being liberally spiced with frankly erotic situations…

The Clerk-in-Charge of the Western Australian Customs office, CJ Carne, was instructed to purchase a copy of Upsurge for review in July 1934. He reported that the book was ‘decidedly indecent … and advocates the overthrow by violence of established Government’. Describing it as ‘thinly disguised propaganda on behalf of Communism and social revolution’, Carne made it clear he felt the novel was seditious under the provisions of the Customs Act.

However, the newly created Book Censorship Board, which reported on Upsurge in November 1934, banned the novel primarily as indecent. Chairman RR Garran described it as ‘a crude book … [that is] disfigured by some very gross passages’:

E.g. pp. 31–2 – “Lord of the Urinal” – just dirty with no apparent reason. And the brothel scene – pp. 189–90 … is quite unnecessarily indecent – on a level with an indecent photograph.

Garran concluded that ‘a book cannot be “cut” like a film. If a writer chooses to introduce obscenities like these, I should ban.’ The Customs Minister agreed and added the novel to the list of prohibited imports on 20 November 1934.

Book Censorship Board report on Upsurge

Although ‘Upsurge’ was banned as indecent by the Board, one member also noted the author’s ‘tendency to hold established authority to contempt or ridicule’.
NAA: A3023, Folder 1933/34

Before it was banned by Customs, Upsurge was subject to legal action in New South Wales and Western Australia under state laws. After police confiscated copies from Perth booksellers in August 1934, Harcourt defended his book as a socialist critique of Australian society:

The theme of the novel is the modern economic crisis, with its accompanying decay in the manners and morals of society … I do not think that anyone, other than those who run away from all forms of unpleasantness, would regard it as indecent … English and American reviewers have given it high praise.

Banned for nearly 24 years, Upsurge was released on 29 April 1958 following the first review of banned books since Federation.

Next month we will look at one of the most provocative and radical novels of the 20th century, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Banned as ‘hard-core pornography’ by Customs in 1960, this novel was one of the last literary works to remain on the prohibited list.

See more:

Customs file on Upsurge, 1934–61

Book Censorship Board report on Upsurge (pages 115–17), 1934

Newspaper articles relating to Upsurge, 1933–1949

The Catcher in the Rye

This is an abridged version of an article by Tracey Clarke published in Issue 9 of Your Memento.

First published in 1951, JD Salinger’s classic novel about teenage angst and rebellion had been freely circulating in Australia for some years when a clerk of the Customs Literature Censorship Section seized an imported copy for review. Despite describing it as ‘extremely readable … and punctuated with humour, pathos and wise commentaries on our society’, he felt the novel contained enough ‘indelicate, indecent and almost blasphemous references’ to be considered a prohibited import.

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye

Cover of The Catcher in the Rye, 1953 edition published by Signet Books.
NAA: C3059, The Catcher in the Rye

Without referring it to the Literature Censorship Board, which was established in the 1930s to provide expertise on works of literary or scholarly merit, the Customs Department added the novel to the list of banned books on 21 August 1956.

Although prohibited in Australia, The Catcher in the Rye was respected around the world. The United States Ambassador even donated copies to foreign governments as an example of his country’s literature. When a copy of the book was seized from the Parliamentary Library in September 1957, the press declared the ban a national embarrassment and widely criticised the censorship regime.

On 20 September 1957 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that ‘this country has one of the most arbitrary – and perhaps one of the most inefficient – systems of book censorship in the world’. An editorial published the next day proclaimed:

The Customs Department can ban a book on its own initiative. The ban may (but need not) be reviewed by the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board; after that, by a one-man appeal board; and, finally, by the Minister for Trade and Customs (who is not, however, obliged to follow anybody’s advice) … Commonwealth censorship is superfluous, and should be abolished.

Letter from EC Harris Publishers

Only months before the ban on ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ was lifted, the book’s publisher made an unsuccessful appeal to have their expurgated edition of the book released.
NAA: B13, 1957/10559

When the Literature Censorship Board reviewed Salinger’s novel in October it had ‘no hesitation’ in recommending release.

Shortly after, Customs Minister Denham Henty announced that the list of banned books would be reviewed by the Literature Censorship Board, and that these reviews would occur every five years. All literary works were to be forwarded to the Board and the list of banned literary and scholarly works was made public for the first time.

Following the 1958 review, the banned list was reduced to 178 titles. Determined protest from book importers and anti-censorship groups, as well as a change in the attitudes of key Customs personnel, contributed to a more relaxed policy. The introduction of R-ratings for books in the early 1970s saw the end of effective literary censorship in Australia. By December 1973, no books were on the banned list.

Next month we will take you back to the banning of JM Harcourt’s Upsurge in 1934. Described as one of the most radical Australian books written during the interwar years, Upsurge was the first novel to be regarded as both obscene and seditious by the censors.

See more:

Customs file on The Catcher in the Rye, 1956-57

Press statement announcing the 1958 review (page 14), 1957

List of banned books following the 1958 review (pages 41-44), 1957

Newspaper articles relating to The Catcher in the Rye, 1957