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?

Francesca Rendle-Short, Bite your tongue (Review)

Francesa Rendle-Short book cover Bite your tongue

Bite your tongue Bookcover (Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

How much do you think about the first sentence of your review? Like me, you probably try to find some anchor or point of interest to lead off from, but my problem with novelist-journalist Francesca Rendle-Short‘s fiction-cum-memoir, Bite your tongue, is that I have too many angles to choose from. Which one do I use? Do I go with the unusual form of this fiction-cum-memoir? Do I talk about my old friend synchronicity and how one of my first reviews in 2011 was a (semi)autobiographical novel about an Australian childhood, Barbara Hanrahan‘s The scent of eucalyptus? Or, do I talk about how I’m sure Spinifex Press had no idea how close to my heart this book would be when they offered it for review – how I (more or less) share a late 1950s/early 60s Brisbane childhood with Rendle-Short and how the very word “spinifex” is nostalgic for me due to my mid-1960s years in the mining town of Mount Isa? There, I’ve covered them all … so now I can get on with the review!

This is a mother-daughter story. How many of those have you read? I’ve certainly read a few in the last decade or so, including straight memoirs (such as Jill Ker Conway‘s The road from Coorain) and thinly veiled fictional pieces (such as Kate JenningsSnake). These books can be challenging for daughters to write, particularly when there is significant pain involved. Rendle-Short’s solution is to (mostly) tell from a “fictional” standpoint. She creates names for the family, including MotherJoy for the mother, Glory for herself, Gracie for her nearest and youngest sister, and Onward for her father. The last-name she devises for this family is Solider, which is an anagram of “soldier”. With the father being Onward, and the family being devoutly Christian, the hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” must surely have inspired her naming. Rendle-Short writes, in the introduction, about how she chose to tell the story:

Some stories are hard to tell, they bite back. To write this one, I’ve had to come at it obliquely, give myself over to the writing with my face half-turned; give my story to someone else to tell. My chosen hero is a girl named Glory …

Australian Literature Month Platypus logo

Reading Matters’ Australian Literature Month

Why is this story so hard to tell? Well, Glory’s (Rendle-Short’s) mother was “a morals crusader, an ‘anti-smut’ campaigner. An activist. She was on a mission from God to save the children of Queensland” (from the Prologue). This mission involved banning “lewd” and “pornographic” books (of which 100 are listed at the back of the book in “Dr Joy’s Death List: Burn a Book a Day”). Clearly Rendle-Short (aka Glory), the fifth of six children (all girls in the book, five girls and a boy in reality), had a painful childhood. It’s not that she and her siblings weren’t loved – they clearly were – but it was a hard love, a love based too much on a narrow Christian ideology and too little, it seems, on the needs of children. One of the most painful scenes in the book is when Glory visits her mother in hospital after heart surgery and wants to kiss her but can’t bring herself to do so! Can’t kiss her old mother! That shows more than words ever could the pain in this relationship.

The book pretty well covers the story from Glory’s birth to MotherJoy’s death in her 80s, though it focuses primarily on Glory’s school years. There are 100 chapters in less than 250 pages. Most of these chapters are told third person, from Glory’s point of view. What makes this book particularly interesting form-wise, though, is that 14 chapters are written in first person, memoir-style. That is, Francesca speaks of herself and her mother, Angel, using their real names. In these scattered first person chapters, Francesca writes on her research, on how she pieced together her mother’s story through, for example, research at the National Library of Australia and the National Archives of Australia. She also occasionally comments on where the “fact” diverges from the “fiction” such as:

Unlike Glory, I wasn’t in Brisbane when my mother died, I was at home in Canberra where I was living at the time – because there was a scene. There was always a scene with Angel, especially where her children were concerned, the ‘jewels in her crown’, and on her deathbed it was no different. All six children had been at her bedside while she was dying …

And then, without describing exactly what happened, she tells us that, despite all of them having made the effort to get there, including from overseas, “seven days before she took her last breath, all six of us walked out on her. We had to do it …”.

Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 Badge

Australian Women Writers Challenge (Design: Book’dout – Shelleyrae)

Now, if you are a reader who likes closure, who wants to know exactly what happened, you are not going to get it in this book, not specifically anyhow, but you will, if you read the clues, know what life was like in that family, at least what it was like for Glory/Francesca. You will know that she loved her mother, and wanted her mother’s approval, but that she had other attitudes and other feelings that were clearly not in accord with her mother’s. We are given enough “scenes” involving her mother (directly or indirectly) to tell us all we need to know. A particularly excruciating example is when Glory is cruelly bullied by her school “peers” (one can’t say  “mates” in the context) because of her mother’s views. (Where her father, an academic in pediatrics and a creationist, stood in all this is unclear. He’s there in the book, but we see little active parenting from him.)

Oh dear, I have so much to say on this book that I could easily turn this post into an essay, so I will finish here. I thoroughly enjoyed this book … on multiple levels. The writing is good, comprising many of the things that appeal to me – wordplay, lovely rhythm, effective imagery (such as the “tongue” motif). The story is easy to follow, despite changes in voice and chronology (as we flip backwards and forwards from childhood to MotherJoy/Angel’s old age). There are universals about love and forgiveness (real and wished for) between parents and children. And, there is love for books (in all their glory!):

Books show us how to love, really love body to body between the pages. Love perhaps where we’ve never loved before. That’s what Glory hopes.

Reading changes things …

… as, I suspect for Rendle-Short, does writing!

Francesa Rendle-Short
Bite your tongue
North Melbourne: Spinifex Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781876756963

(Review copy supplied by Spinifex Press.)

Review to count towards the Australian Women Writers 2012 Reading and Reviewing Challenge.