Banned Books

This week Americans celebrate Banned Books Week, September 24 – October 1.

Portrait of Ern Malley by Sidney Nolan (1973). via National Portrait Gallery

Australia has a long history of censorship and most people are familiar with recent films that have been refused classification and banned.

However Australia has also had a long history of banning literature. There are some well-known books such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence which was banned until 1965, or the trial of Max Harris, who was charged with indecent publication when he published the poems of ‘Ern Malley’ in Angry Penguins.

A vast range of books have been banned in Australia for reasons including depictions of sex, homosexuality, violence, crime and drug use. In 1935 the responsibility for banning books fell on the Department of Trade and Customs who could ban the import of any book it deemed “obscene, indecent, blasphemous and seditious, or those identified to excessively emphasise sex, violence or crime”.

Prominent novelists and writers who had books banned in Australia include Gore Vidal, Vladimir Lenin, Aldous Huxley, Barry Humphries, William S. Burroughs, James Baldwin, Honor de Balzac, Charles Bukowski, Simone de Beauvoir, Norman Mailer, George Orwell and Leonard Cohen. The James Bond novel The Spy Who Loved Me was banned in 1962 adding Ian Fleming to list. Ernest Hemingway also makes the list; A Farewell To Arms, his semi-autobiographical novel about an ambulance driver at the Italian front during World War I, was banned from 1931 until 1935 possibly because the original book includes the words “shit”, “fuck” and “cocksucker”.

The Catcher In The Rye by J.D. Salinger was banned by Customs in 1956. The book was not referred to the Literature Censorship Board presuambly because Customs did not feel that the book was sufficiently ‘literary’. Copies of the book were even seized from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library however the ban was soon lifted in 1957.

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis is still banned in Queensland. It is available, albeit restricted, in public libraries and for sale to readers over 18 in all other states.

Katharine Susannah Prichard’s novel Coonardoo won first prize in the Bulletin’s annual literary competition. The novel, which was serialised in the Bulletin, details a sexual relationship between a white station owner and an Aboriginal housekeeper. One of the judges of the Bulletin competition declared that no white man was capable of any “higher emotion” than pity for an Aboriginal woman, and in the controversy that surrounded the story it was refused publication in Australia, notably by Angus & Robertson. It was published in London by Jonathan Cape in 1954.

James Joyce also makes the list. Dubliners was banned from 1929 until 1933. Ulysses was banned from 1929 until 1937. Ulysses was accused of being blasphemous and obscene. After the ban was lifted Catholic organisations in Australia campaigned the Literature Board to ban the book again. The book was again restricted in 1941 with the ban being lifted in 1953 after it was considered ineffectual considering how many copies were already in circulation.

James Joyce getting a Face Full of Fart by Robert Goodin

To celebrate Banned Books Week we direct you to the (filthy) love letters of James Joyce.

Joyce wrote a number of letters to his lover Nora Barnacle. Joyce and Barnacle had a complex relationship; they met on June 10 1904 and had their first romantic liaison on June 16 1904 – this date was chosen for the setting of Joyce’s Ulysses and is celebrated around the world as Bloomsday. Although, in 1931, Barnacle eventually married Joyce, she had written many letters to her sister complaining about his personal qualities and his writings.

In 2004, one of Joyce’s love letters was sold for $445,000 USD at auction. The letters are very explicit and seem to chronicle every encounter and desire. As Nora herself wrote about Joyce: “I don’t know whether my husband is a genius or not, but he certainly has a dirty mind”.

Enjoy them in the spirit of Banned Book Week.

You can also read more about banned books in Australia at:

2 thoughts on “Banned Books

  1. Well, that was interesting. But let me tell you something from my point of view. No book has been banned in the USA for about half a century. Fanny Hill got that honor a long time ago. Challenged books in schools that are removed is different from banning. Setting aside that Banned Books Week is propaganda, the creator of BBW said:

    “On rare occasion, we have situations where a piece of material is not what it appears to be on the surface and the material is totally inappropriate for a school library. In that case, yes, it is appropriate to remove materials. If it doesn’t fit your material selection policy, get it out of there.”

    See: “Banned Books Week Propaganda Exposed by Progressive Librarian Rory Litwin; ALA Censors Out Criticism of Its Own Actions in a Manner Dishonest to the Core.”

    And if that James Joyce picture was on Twitter, it would say “Woot!”, not “Poot!”, no?

  2. Thanks, Dan – interesting to note that there haven’t been any bans of books in the US for the past fifty years. I don’t think Australia has ever enshrined the right to freedoms of speech so there is probably a significant difference between the attitudes of the two countries. Also there was a strong social conservatism throughout Australia during the 1940s through to the 1960s so material deemed “obscene” covered a lot of areas.

    I think that the removal of books from school libraries versus public libraries is probably a larger conversation. For the most part in the Australian experience these have been import bans. That books we consider literature were banned has stifled Australian writers and shut them off from the rest of the world.

    It might sound a bit like hyperbole but until recently Australia has often been late to experience world literature and some of international movements in literature and poetry. Things are substantially different now but censorship and the banning of books in Australia has been very real and detrimental.

    Polyester Books, a store in Melbourne, have been raided by police as recently as 2006 and Ariel Books in Sydney have had problems with certain imports. Granted, the seized books weren’t exactly literature but there is still a battle between booksellers and customs!

    Thanks again.