The Trials of Portnoy: how Penguin brought down Australia’s censorship system
It was 1969 when the enigmatic Philip Roth first published Portnoy’s Complaint in the United States. The novel, described by the New Yorker as “one of the dirtiest books ever published,” became an instant bestseller in America and turbocharged Roth to celebrity.
Laden in controversy, Roth’s work followed sex-obsessed Alexander Portnoy’s Freudian confessions to his psychoanalyst, thrilling critics and outraging conservatives in the Jewish community. “I am the Raskolnikov of jerking off – the sticky evidence is everywhere!” Portnoy cried on his analyst’s couch.
In many ways, Portnoy couldn’t have dropped at a better time nor place. In America, this came in the form of highlighting the paradox between a society awash with sexual liberation and freedom, and the guilt-ridden sexualities of young men growing up in traditional Jewish families (“Doctor doctor, what do you say, let’s put the id back in yid” Portnoy urged). But in Australia, Portnoy’s Complaint was to be the catalyst for a complete overhaul of our nation’s punishingly strict censorship laws.
Enter Patrick Mullins’ The Trials of Portnoy – a stunningly well researched deep dive into that murky legacy. In the 1960s, Australia’s censorship system was well regarded as one of the strictest in the Western world – harsher even than our British coloniser’s. A whole swathe of books had been banned for some time under Australia’s system, from Catcher in the Rye to Ulysses, Brave New World and Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms. Portnoy’s Complaint was no exception, declared illegal throughout the Commonwealth by 1970.
Mullins is no stranger to research. In 2018, he published the fascinating biography of poorly-respected Prime Minister William McMahon, largely regarded as Australia’s worst leader, Tiberius with a Telephone. Herein lies Mullins’ skill: taking a seemingly under-looked and uninteresting subject – neglected PM’s or censorship law – and coaxing a rollicking good read out of it.
Some of the most fascinating segments of the book are when Mullins details the shockingly restrictive rhetoric of keeping Australia “pure” and “clean” from the corruption outside of our puritan shores. This was a notion quite partisan in politics for almost a century, until the election of Whitlam in the 1970s.
Often, the language used by these holier-than-thou figures is highly entertaining. Eric Harrison, minister for trade and customs in 1941 decried Ulysses, calling it “crude and vulgar in every possible way”, that it could “only pander to pornographic minds” and “made his hair stand on end”.
“Why, there is hardly a page that is fit to read!” Harrison wrote.
But in 1970, key figures in the literary world threw up their arms and decided they’d had enough. The catalyst came with John Michie, the young, charismatic head of Penguin at the time of Portnoy’s ban. Together with booksellers and printers, Mulli’s tells how Penguin’s team decided to use Portnoy’s Complaint as the match to spark the explosion of Australia’s censorship system.
And – in a touching homage to decades of writers and creative’s rituals – the secret plans to print the book and distribute it to bookstores before authorities had a chance to intervene came alive around glasses of wine at Jimmy Watson’s on Lygon Street in Melbourne, next door to Readings bookshop.
The rest of the book places the reader in courtrooms across the nation, where roaring trials debating the merits of Portnoy’s bring forth heavyweight figures like Patrick White, laden in “austere black coat and homburg”, or David Marr, waiting in the awnings.
To hear these passionate, well-versed debates on the value of literature, of culture, of philosophical prose in today’s society, of challenging the status quo, is especially valuable and poignant when humanities courses in our Universities are set to skyrocket by more than double, and the government seems to be actively dissuading students from pursuing a career in the arts. It is clear, despite how far we’ve come with Portnoy’s Complaint, that our nation still has a long way to go.
But The Trials of Portnoy may too be a lesson, that change may, at long last, arrive, as long as we’re willing to fight for it.