Monday musings on Australian literature: Books banned in Australia

Book coverThis week, my reading group will be discussing an American classic, Mary McCarthy’s The group. Published in 1963, it sat on the New York Times best-selling list for five months. It also has the honour of having been banned in Australia! I realised that I’ve never done a Monday Musings on banned books, so now seemed a good time …

Last year, in Banned Books Week, The Canberra Times’ Karen Hardy wrote on the subject. She quotes Meredith Duncan, Library Manager at the ANU, as saying that the main type of books that used to be banned in Australia were those “seen as obscene”. She told Hardy that our attitudinal changes towards sex and sexuality have shaped literary censorship over the years:

“In the introduction to one of the editions we have here of the Kamasutra, which was banned in Australia for many years, reads ‘This is only to be read by married men or medical professionals’.

“A lot of censorship revolved around the idea of women taking charge, a lot of men weren’t comfortable with that.”

As times changed, she said, “homosexuality became a hot topic”.

However, as a National Archives of Australia (NAA) blog post says:

Literary and scholarly works made up only a small proportion of the publications banned by Australian Customs. The bulk of prohibited imports were pulp fiction novels, comics, magazines and pornographic material. These items were considered to be a threat, not only to our morals, but also to Australia’s literary standards. They were banned by Customs under special provisions introduced in 1938 to address the growing number of cheap books and magazines entering the country.

Consequently, in the 1940s and 1950s, those popular pulp fiction crime and detective thrillers with their “themes of both sex and violence” were frequently banned by Customs. (Do check out the blog post to see a selection of these, such as Darcy Glinto’s Road floozie!) Adult magazines, too, “were often subject to blanket prohibitions lasting years”. Playboy, for example, was banned here from 1955 to 1960.

Most of the information below comes from posts on the NAA’s Banned blog which they published over 2013. It is worth checking out, as it includes a wonderful selection of primary source documents. Use this Books page link to check out individual banned books.

Ten books banned in Australia

  • James Baldwin’s Another country: partially banned in 1963, until 1966, allowed only for “the serious minded student or reader”. Among the comments made by Kenneth Binns, of the Literature Censorship Board, was that the description of a homosexual incident “on pages 367-375 would both shock and offend the average Australian reader for he is not as sex conditioned as are readers in most other countries”. (Oh, we innocent little Aussies!) He was also concerned that a ban might “even be associated with Australia’s misunderstood ‘White Australia’ policy and her refusal to support UN condemnation of South African Apartheid”. (Poor misunderstood Australia!)
  • William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch: banned 1960 to 1973. The last work of fiction to be banned in Australia, it was banned for being “hard-core pornography”. It was reviewed by the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board in 1963 after Clem Christesen, Meanjin’s founder, applied to import the novel. The Board allowed Christesen’s request but unanimously agreed to retain the ban on the general sale of the book. Chairman Kenneth Binns said 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”.
  • Aldous Huxley’s Brave new world: banned 1932 to 1937. Ireland was the only other country to ban it. The ban, says the NAA, was supported “with great gusto by church-related associations and temperance movements” but opposed by librarians (of course) and publishers. The NAA writes that the ban was lifted after the appointment of an Appeal Censor, and that “a sexually permissive culture did not follow, nor did a seditious and morally bankrupt one”. (Funny that!)
  • DH Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s lover: banned 1928 to 1965, for, says Duncan, being “sexually obscene, with explicit relationships”.
  • Mary McCarthy’s The group: banned in Australia, Italy and Ireland, says Wikipedia, for “being offensive to public morals.”
  • Grace Metalius’ Peyton Place: banned 1957 to 1971, after initial approval and dissension within the Board. Positive comments about its depiction of small-town America were set against opinions like those of, yes, Kenneth Binns. He thought the novel’s “profanity and obscene expressions” were excessive, and wrote that “It is unfortunate that Mrs Metalious is so flustered with sex, for she often writes well”.
  • Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita: banned 1955 to 1965, though in 1964 its prohibition was appealed when the ANU’s Dr Bob Brissenden added it as a text for his course on American literature. Apparently, a member of the Liberal and Country Party State Council “wondered why students should not study books such as the Bible, or works by Milton, Shakespeare and Dickens” even though this was a course in American literature!
  • Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s complaint: banned 1969 to 1971, and the last work of fiction to be taken to court in Australia. The National Literature Board of Review called it “obscene”, “filthy”, while Chipman of the Department of Customs and Excise noted that it was a bestseller in the America where “permissiveness is unlimited”. (Take that, Americans!) However, literary experts, including Patrick White, argued that it had merits. Its banning history is interesting regarding the role of the states.
  • JD Salinger’s Catcher in the rye: banned 1956 to 1957, although it had been circulating in Australia since publication in 1951. Talk about after the horse bolting! As with most bannings, it resulted in discussion in the media. The Sydney Morning Herald wrote in 1957, that “this country has one of the most arbitrary – and perhaps one of the most inefficient – systems of book censorship in the world”. The Commonwealth Literature Board could, but didn’t have to, review books banned by Customs. In this case, the Board had “no hesitation” in releasing it!
  • Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber: banned 1945 to 1958, for its “crude and obvious appeal to the sexual instinct”, for lacking literary merit and over-emphasising sex. Customs Minister Senator Richard Keane said, “The Almighty did not give the people eyes to read that kind of rubbish”.

Counter-arguments for not banning, or for lifting bans, included practical ones, such as that the book was too expensive for many readers, and that the book was not likely to be of popular interest. (Of course, if they banned it, it would certainly become so!)

Finally, Karen Hardy reminded us in 2018 that there are several non-fiction titles still banned in Australia, including two guide books – Dr Philip Nitschke’s voluntary euthanasia one, The peaceful pill handbook, and The anarchist cookbook, on how to make explosives and weapons, and manufacture drugs. Further, some books remain restricted. Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel, American psycho, for example, cannot be bought in Queensland by those under the age of 18.

As a librarian, I support the freedom to read (freedom of information.)

Comments anyone?

33 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Books banned in Australia

  1. This is fascinating. I have a question – the movie of Forever Amber was released in 1947 – was it also banned in Australia? How could I find this out?

    • Thanks Carmel. Yes I had read about the film. I don’t think the film was banned. Wikipedia has a list of films banned in Australia and it’s not there, though that list is not complete I’d say. It’s not in the NAA article on the book – and I think they would have mentioned that if it had been. So, it probably wasn’t. Wikipedia does say though (on the page for the film) that the Catholic Church objected to it.

      It was a book I remember my school friends reading but I wasn’t into historical romance. My tastes were more contemporary. I had no idea then that it had been banned. I might have read it if I’d known!

      • Lady Chatterly’s Lover is my favourite banned book.
        I believe I read The Naked Lunch at uni – while it was banned according to your list.
        Do you remember Man magazine which contained airbrushed black & white photos of nudists?
        I’m sure you remember Don Chipp, he must have hated being chief wowser.
        You left out Christina Stead’s Letty Fox.

        • Yes, Bill, I nearly mentioned him – Chipp I mean – yes I do remember him and yes not a natural fit you would have thought. As for Letty Fox, that didn’t come up in my search, and I’d forgotten, but Ulysses did.

          I remember hearing about Man, but never saw it myself!

          As for Lady Chatterley- do you mean the favourite of those you’ve read, or your favourite banned book story?

  2. “They were banned by Customs under special provisions introduced in 1938 to address the growing number of cheap books and magazines entering the country.” Imagine if this were applied to ALL cheap imports !
    Mr Binns is a perfect model of the paternalistic Australian male. They still exist – in fact, all over the bloody place !

  3. Banning books is illiberal and counter of the principle of free speech and free thought. I also shake my head when I see the lists of banned books. Many, like Brave New World are Themselves warnings against such controlled societies.

    I wonder how Another Country’s partial ban worked.

    • Agree, Brian, re banning books.

      Yes, I wonder too. I’m guessing it might only have been available at, say, university libraries – but the notes I read didn’t explain it. In QLD, still, you can apparently only buy American psycho if you are over 18, but once you’ve BOUGHT it, who controls who READS it?

  4. Ah, the good old days of the Porn Fests, when a thousand students gathered in the Carslaw Lecture Theatre at Sydney University to have erotic texts read to us, as an anti-censorship protest. I still remember a brilliant little two-character play by Sam Shepard and extraordinary OTT poems from the 18th century England (presumably not banned). I remember an anecdote told by a lecturer in the English Department, now a distinguished post and novelist, at about that time, when Portnoy’s Complaint was still banned, : at a literary event in New York City, a woman was introduced to Philip Roth but at the last moment recoiled in horror from the prospect of shaking his right hand.

    • Recoiled from shaking his right hand!! Haha, Jonathan, love it!

      By the time I was an uni in the 70s, book banning was becoming less frequent. I remember a few hoo-has but it wasn’t something that confronted us in a big way. I was still at high school, for example, when Portnoy was banned (though I was far enough into high school to remember the uproar.)

  5. I’m delighted to say that I have read nearly all of your list!
    The Censor’s Library by Nicole Moore (see is illuminating. She trawled through 12000 banned items held in 793 boxes covering 60 years of censorship up to the 1980s, and covers censorship not just on the grounds of obscenity but also religious offence; homosexuality and race-relations; birth control, (yes, really) abortion and childbirth without pain (yes, really!!); sedition and terrorism. It’s a fascinating topic!

    • Thanks Lisa … yes, I had a feeling there had been a book on the topic since we’d been blogging. I’d love to read it one day. The NAA blog posts list a couple of books that sound interesting, but I don’t they listed that one. But your right – the “moral” topics they banned books on were rather various. Childbirth without pain?

      BTW AM just loving The Group which is richer for me now than it was when I read, and enjoyed, in my 20s, because of my extra decades of life experience. Some of the great stuff is on childrearing – breastfeeding (shock horror), toilet training, feeding to a schedule. Great stuff. Not to mention the attitudes to sex, gender, mental health, politics and Communism and Roosevelt’s New Deal. It’s such a rich book.

  6. Fascinating. I find it particularly interesting that books are banned and then, ten years later, allowed – does someone remain the champion for the book and keep pressing for it to be reviewed?!

    In our digital age (and age of online shopping), much of this seems irrelevant in regards to literature (I exclude nonfiction from that given there are criminal ramifications for accessing certain material online). It certainly makes the task of the censors more difficult.

    I’ve read a few on the banned list and so far I think I’ve managed to live life without becoming morally corrupt because of my reading 😀 (I actually have The Group in my TBR stack).

    • Oh do read The Group Kate … it’s really fascinating. I’ll aim to get my review up later in the week.

      And yes, I think some (most) of the ban-lifting was because of a champion (often universities leading the charge, but also publishers, and others.) But I think they did eventually set up a review system, and this probably also resulted in some bans being lifted. I haven’t read the history of book censorship in Australia deeply.

      • I love the line about the honour of a book being banned in Australia. Interesting list of books. I remember reading Another Country when I was about 13/14 and it seemed so intelligently adult about human beings. It was a mass marker Corgi paperback and I don’t think it was ever banned in this country.

        • I think we were worse as banning that you were! I’m impressed that you read Another country then, and appreciated it.

          BTW We had Corgi paperbacks here too.

  7. I had to get my boyfriend to pick up my copy of American Psycho because I was under 18. The book was kept under the counter and handed over sealed in plastic with plain brown paper wrapping. It was an awful book by the way.

    • Oh thanks for this shelleyrae. I love hearing first hand experiences like this. Why was it awful? Well, I understand that the whole subject matter is unpleasant – is that why? Or is it the writing?

        • but seriously, why are people writing thesis on misogny in fiction novels? that is the definition of ignorance. there are some fascinting topics out there and would do good to society. who is pushing this mindless crap in universities?

      • I didn’t think it had much value past the shock horror factor – I was 17 at the time which was exactly why I bought it lol. Describing it in today’s terms it’s the fantasies of a millennial incel somehow given legitimacy because the protagonist was white and rich, much like the author himself. Separating the subject matter from the quality of writing is very difficult, and I no longer have my copy – I leant it to someone a few years ago and it was never returned.

        • Thanks shelleyrae. It would be interesting if you read it now, whether you would think differently? Probably not, from what you say. I must say I’m intrigued by it – but not that much to put it ahead of other things I want to read.

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