The Trials of Portnoy: How Penguin brought down Australia’s censorship system has been published by Scribe.
Your previous book, Tiberius With A Telephone, was a widely-acclaimed work of biography, the winner of the 2020 National Biography Award and the winner of the 2020 Douglas Stewart Prize in the NSW Premiers’ Literary Awards. One aspect of The Trials of Portnoy I enjoyed very much was your deft, vivid portraits of the key players in the various cases. Can you tell us how you approach these? More broadly, what do you see as the key differences between writing biography and history?
I am interested, as an academic and writer, in non-fiction that tills the ground between journalism of the day-to-day and histories that are written long after the event. The best non-fiction of this kind — which can include true crime, travel writing, biography, autobiography, investigative journalism, etc. — couples the historian’s rigour, depth, and thoughtfulness with techniques that are often associated with fiction but which really are the techniques of good storytelling: dialogue, scene recreation, and good characterisation. These works also adopt narrative-based approaches to make arguments about the interpretation and understanding of a particular subject. I try to work within this space, partly because I am not a trained journalist or historian, but also because I enjoy the analytical and creative challenges this kind of writing throws up.
I think that the overarching difference between biography and history is biography’s concern with the individual and history’s broader horizons. Although biographies and histories will heavily contextualise their subjects, the gravitational pull of biography will always tug the writer back to the single life, whereas a work of history will aim for an understanding beyond the individual: not necessarily universal, but certainly more general. The strength of biography is that it allows readers to understand events, people, and contexts as they were likely to have been experienced; its weakness is that more impersonal forces and ideas are harder to understand and may not receive their due.
One of the extraordinary aspects of The Trials of Portnoy is the fact that Australia’s systems of literary censorship lasted as long as they did. Why did Australia have such a vigorous system of censorship for much of the twentieth century? What sort of material was censored, and how was the system maintained? Was there bipartisan support for censorship for much of this period?
To some extent, Australia’s censorship system was inherited. Laws passed by the colonies in imitation of British statutes around obscene and indecent material were inherited by the states upon Federation, allowing state authorities to seize domestically-produced material and prosecute local authors, publishers, and booksellers; simultaneously, the adoption of the Customs Act (1901) allowed clerks and offices of the Department of Customs to screen material brought into Australia by returning travellers and importers. In combination with a raft of other legislation passed in the states, this produced an immensely effective system for policing material deemed obscene, indecent, blasphemous, and seditious. Where it grew locally it could be rooted out like a weed; where it arrived from abroad it could be confiscated.
But Australia very quickly made this system its own, and the material that was banned shifted as the motivations for that system ebbed and changed. Early in the twentieth century, ideas around nation-building and the role that literature could play in shaping morality were paramount in censorship practices and its justification. In the years between World War I and II, the apparent threat of radical political ideologies saw bans on literature influenced by socialism, communism, fascism, anarchism, and even modernism. In the post-war years, censorship was regarded as a vital tool for preserving the existing moral, political, and religious fabric of this country. Works that depicted overt sex, violence, blasphemy, and other corrupted behaviour were therefore banned.
An overarching theme of censorship practices, I think, was a largely bipartisan belief on the part of politicians and bureaucrats that government should play the part of guardian for a vulnerable public. This consensus began to break down in the 1960s, and broke decisively in the 1970s, especially upon the election of the Whitlam government, which turned the censorship system toward the classification model that we have today.
You describe Roth’s novel and its international critical acclaim so vividly, noting the contrast to the novel’s Australian reception (I particularly liked the assessment of the customs official who described the book’s plot as ‘Jewish lawyer with chip on his shoulder tells of his life and upbringing with particular emphasis on his sexual exploits’). By the time Penguin confronted the government with the push to release Portnoy’s Complaint here, there had been many challenges to censorship from people across the political spectrum (from Oz magazine to people like the Liberal establishment figure Peter Coleman). Who supported and opposed censorship in Australia in this period, and why? How did Don Chipp (and his state counterparts) navigate the politics of censorship?
Barring a short-lived opposition in the 1930s, censorship was largely something of a fringe issue in Australia. But late in the 1950s the issue moved to the centre of political debate and the largely consensus approach to censorship began to fracture. Censorship came under sustained attack from activists including Alec Sheppard, Wendy Bacon, Frank Moorhouse, Denis Altman, and the men behind Oz. Many of them regarded censorship as outdated and saw its removal as a necessary step before broader, necessary debates — about sex and sexuality, gender and racial discrimination, the family, and power — could be had. That this came right amid the Liberal Party’s heyday in federal and state politics meant that many of its senior figures became bulwarks for the system: Victorian chief secretary Arthur Rylah, for example, became notorious for his refusal to allow Mary McCarthy’s novel The Group into his state on grounds that he would not allow his (non-existent) teenage daughter to read it. And even those who had doubts about the censorship system were forced to defend it. Don Chipp is the best example of that latter type: recalled today for the liberalism that caused him to desert the Liberal Party and found the Australian Democrats, Chipp was appointed minister for customs by prime minister John Gorton late in 1969. Chipp immediately denounced censorship and began to liberalise it: he introduced the R and X ratings for film and released a swathe of hitherto banned books. But on Portnoy’s Complaint he remained adamant that the existing ban should be maintained. My view is that Chipp, even as he liberalised the censorship system, wanted to be firm on the high-profile Portnoy in order to appease those on his side of politics who wished to preserve the censorship system. It was a decision that caused Chipp no end of embarrassment, particularly amid the trials that followed Penguin’s publication of Portnoy in spring 1970 — but it also ensured a very public demonstration that times had changed and that liberalisation was inevitable.
I enjoyed reading your account of the various obscenity trials, featuring famous witnesses like Patrick White and Manning Clark, and the many attempts to prove the book would adversely influence children and young people: you highlight the absurdities of the trials beautifully. What were the key issues at play in the various trials over the book? Can you tell us about the sources you used to write these accounts?
Ostensibly, all of the trials centred on three questions: was Portnoy’s Complaint obscene? If it was, did it have literary merit? And, if it was obscene and it was possessed of literary merit, had it been on sale to all and sundry, or were there measures in place to stop it being sold to children? The answers to those questions affected whether the accused — Penguin, Angus & Robertson, the Communist Party-owned Pioneer Bookshop, and others — would be found guilty or not. While the urgency of these questions was thus present at all times, the trials themselves ranged much more broadly. As you write, they were absurd: grand figures wearing wigs and gowns argued at length about the perils of masturbation! At other times, though, the trials were very serious, deep inquisitions into what literature is, or could be, and how people and societies are formed and shaped. It was that mix of issues, as well as my admiration for the academic witnesses who testified at the trials, that made me decide to write the book.
I drew on trial transcripts where they existed (for the WA trial, for example, I could only find a copy of the magistrate’s notes of the proceedings), interviews with the witnesses and lawyers still alive, press clippings, published accounts, and archival material, the most significant of which are the letters written by Penguin Australia’s managing director, John Michie, who masterminded the whole affair. Significant because they are some of the only surviving documents about Penguin Australia from this time, and obtained with no small effort and cost from the Jonathan Cape archives in the UK, those letters were vital to understanding how Penguin pulled off the great feat of smuggling Portnoy into Australia, printing 75,000 copies, and getting those copies to two thousand bookstores around the country at the same time. Those letters were terrific. There were, of course, sources closer to home that were gems: Vincent Buckley’s poem Portnoy’s Revenge, the blue pocket-sized notebook in which Manning Clark scratched phrases for his testimony in the Victorian trial, and the near-translucent foolscap page I was given on which the prosecutor in that trial had worked out the percentage of Portnoy’s Complaint that was ‘dirty’. That he thought his point would be more convincing if he went to decimal places made me laugh.
How did the case contribute to the reshaping of Australia’s systems of censorship?
The effects of the Portnoy affair were many. The first and most immediate was the shattering of the agreement to enforce uniform censorship throughout Australia. The South Australian government’s decision to not prosecute sellers of Portnoy’s Complaint brought an end to this fragile, last-gasp-of-the-system agreement on the same day that Portnoy’s Complaint was published. The second effect was to draw public attention to censorship as an issue. The headlines made by the book’s publication, the extraordinary sales, and the coverage of the trials that followed over the subsequent eighteen months, helped to ensure that debate about the merits of censorship remained on the political agenda. The third effect was to embarrass the censorship authorities. The myriad results of the trials — guilty, not guilty, no verdict — as well as the negligible fines levied in the face of guilty verdicts did nothing to reinforce perceptions of the censorship system as an effective force in Australia. Fourth, the example and the results of the trials emboldened activists and booksellers. When Angus & Robertson came to publish Leonard Cohen’s banned novel Beautiful Losers in 1972, managing director Richard Walsh was asked whether he feared prosecution. His answer was a signal of how much things had changed: ‘Not after Portnoy.’ I believe that the Portnoy affair helped to consolidate and grow the belief that censorship had to be all but abolished.
How do you think that the Portnoy’s Complaint saga, coming at the tail end of a long period of coalition government, help us understand broader social and cultural changes in Australia in the 1970s?
In one respect, the Portnoy’s Complaint saga shows how exhausted and enfeebled the Liberal-Country Party government was by the 1970s: it had been reduced to a bystander, really. In another vein, it does help to understand how and why some changes in the 1970s were so dramatic and forceful. Censorship had kept a lid on so many issues for such a long time by rendering them off-limits, defining them as indecent or obscene, and banning and seizing works that depicted them: as Denis Altman wrote in 1969, censorship acted not only to preserve ‘good taste’ but also to exclude radical critiques. The dismantling of the censorship system, I think, allowed the pent-up force for change on those issues to be unleashed. Wendy Bacon said to me that in some ways censorship was the gateway for debate on the issues that needed to be debated: I think that the Portnoy’s Complaint saga helps to understand how and why that debate was finally had in the 1970s.
While we no longer have the same systems of censorship that existed in the 1960s, works of art or literature still emerge from time to time to test community ‘standards’ – Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho (classified R18+) can still only be purchased in Australia in a clear wrapper, and there was the obscenity controversy around Bill Henson’s photographs in 2008, though much of the material that attracts the attention of the state tends to be on controversial topics like euthanasia. What is the relevance of the Portnoy’s Complaint case to contemporary debates about freedom of expression and censorship?
In some respects the relevance is limited. Historically, censorship has manifested through the state, with governments arbitrating what is acceptable to print and say and levying punishments for violations of its decisions. Barring exceptions for defamation and laws around the publication of classified material, that kind of system does not really exist anymore in Australia and no one serious is advocating for the return of the system that existed in the 1970s. But those exceptions are themselves problematic — as the defamation proceedings initiated by Ben Roberts-Smith against Fairfax, and the pending prosecution of ABC journalists Sam Clark and Dan Oakes by the Commonwealth government, both show. In another vein, one of the most insidious effects of the censorship system was to inhibit discussion and debate of certain issues by making them fraught with threats of punishment. As the examples of Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Israel Folau show, the consequences of speaking about some issues today can be very fraught. The tension between individual freedom of speech and a community’s need to decide what is fit for speech and debate is a constant: working out how to manage that tension is the job of every generation.