The Trials of Portnoy

Patrick Mullins

The Trials of Portnoy
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The Trials of Portnoy

Patrick Mullins

Fifty years after the event, here is the first full account of an audacious publishing decision that - with the help of booksellers and readers around the country - forced the end of literary censorship in Australia.

For more than seventy years, a succession of politicians, judges, and government officials in Australia worked in the shadows to enforce one of the most pervasive and conservative regimes of censorship in the world. The goal was simple- to keep Australia free of the moral contamination of impure literature. Under the censorship regime, books that might damage the morals of the Australian public were banned, seized, and burned; bookstores were raided; publishers were fined; and writers were charged and even jailed. But in the 1970s, that all changed.

In 1970, in great secrecy and at considerable risk, Penguin Books Australia resolved to publish Portnoy’s Complaint - Philip Roth’s frank, funny, and profane bestseller about a boy hung up about his mother and his penis. In doing so, Penguin spurred a direct confrontation with the censorship authorities, which culminated in criminal charges, police raids, and an unprecedented series of court trials across the country.

Sweeping from the cabinet room to the courtroom, The Trials of Portnoy draws on archival records and new interviews to show how Penguin and a band of writers, booksellers, academics, and lawyers determinedly sought for Australians the freedom to read what they wished - and how, in defeating the forces arrayed before them, they reshaped Australian literature and culture forever.

Review

In 1969 Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint – a book so widely accepted now that it is deemed boring – was banned in Australia. Undercover police raided bookstores, charged booksellers and seized all the copies they could find of this grotesque satire about a sad Jewish man in New York City.

Patrick Mullins’ latest effort provides the most detailed account yet of this embarrassing moment in our inglorious history. The courtroom antics themselves read like satire. Who knew so much of our taxpayer money historically went towards paying puritanical lawyers to grill professors about the literary merits of masturbation scenes?

Mullins staggers the Portnoy saga with a shocking history of Australian literary censorship. Behind-closed-door scenes of our great leaders discussing literature confirms that the governing cohort in Australia has always seen itself as adults administering to a nation of children.

Mullins reveals how these arbiters of appropriateness beat the Nazis to banning All Quiet on the Western Front – presumably for depicting World War I as anything other than a fun, boys’ own adventure. There was some consternation among the ruling elite years later that the banning of James Baldwin’s Another Country would drive more people into the arms of the Indigenous rights struggle. Zola, Balzac, Brave New World, The Catcher in the Rye … every book you’ve ever had to read for school seems to have been banned at some point, and the bans were often political as well as sexual.

Australians have an overblown image of themselves as fun-loving, anti-authority types. Patrick Mullins’s book is an eye- opening reminder – if we needed one after the recent same-sex marriage ‘debate’ – that more often than not the daily lives of so many of us have been determined by a minority of austere fanatics.


Chris Dite works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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