The Censor’s Library really is a very interesting book. Prior to reading it, I had thought that censorship in Australia was mostly a matter of wowserism, but Nicole Moore makes it clear that there was much more to it than that.
The Censor’s Library covers so much territory that it’s hard to know where to begin. I read a chapter or so each morning over weekday breakfasts for the best part of six weeks, and often found myself scribbling down thoughts while my cereal went soggy and my coffee cooled. I have scraps of commentary all through the book on the backs of envelopes and sticky notes, and just writing this review makes me want to read parts of it again, particularly since the book has been shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards in the Prize for Australian History category. Exploring 12000 banned items held in 793 boxes covering 60 years of censorship to its relaxation in the 1980s, Moore discusses censorship on the grounds of obscenity and religious offence; homosexuality and race-relations; birth control, abortion and childbirth without pain; self-censorship; sedition and terrorism. She also discusses issues of contemporary censorship including something I hadn’t realised about the Intervention: there are restrictions on pornography in indigenous communities which don’t apply elsewhere in Australia.
The book begins with an explanation of the mechanisms by which books were so successfully banned for so many years. When a country is governed in a muddle of state and federal legislation like ours is, there are limitless opportunities for busybodies to interfere in the lives of others, and the creativity with which officialdom exercised its powers is a wonder to behold. As the author says:
Mechanisms used to protect Australian readers from offence included the common law, statutes, legal regulations, court rulings and decisions, policy and bureaucratic processes, expert and inexpert opinion and the influence of medical and psychological discourses, as well as the discourse of literary scholarship, employed as the learned practice of decoding meaning. (p. xv)
This last, literary scholarship used to decode meaning, is especially droll in the case of the scurrilous Ern Malley poems. This famous literary hoax involved sending meaningless mock poems in the modernist style to the hapless editor of Angry Penguins, who published them with great enthusiasm only to have the heavy hand of the censor descend because they were too rude for us to read. In the ensuing obscenity trial, the problem for both prosecution and defence was that they both had to prove that the poems had meaning in order for them to be declared either obscene or alternatively of some literary merit. I think if you check out the poetry at the Ern Malley website, you will see for yourself just how comic the trial must have been.
Except, of course, that being charged with obscenity was no joke. In the chapter entitled ‘Literature in Handcuffs’ Moore tells the story of Robert Close and his ill-fated book Love Me Sailor which landed him in gaol because it so offended the South Australian police that the author and his publisher were charged with a ‘rare and antiquated offence of obscene libel’ which was defined by the court as ‘the publication of any indecent, lewd or filthy matter, which tends to corrupt the morals of society’. p. 176). His sentence was three months, reduced on appeal and he served only ten days, but still, it’s a frightening prospect for any author. (Remember the case of Harry Nicolaides, imprisoned in Thailand for writing a sentence or two that offended the king?)
Norman Lindsay’s Redheap was the first Aussie book banned, but many of the books banned in Australia, however, were not penned by local authors. The Department of Customs and Excise was therefore the gatekeeper, and its energetic officials certainly busied themselves with preventing the importation of all kinds of books. Not just the banning of modernist novels which began in 1929 with James Joyce’s Ulysses (which I have read – naughty bits and all – four times now, but emerged unscathed) but before that, my goodness, even Balzac’s Droll Stories was banned in 1901. It’s no surprise that Zola’s tale of the prostitute Nana was confiscated though its literary merit enabled its subsequent release, but classic works like Ovid’s love poems were banned too.
The trouble was, that the good folk of Australia did not even know which books were denied them, because there was no list published. Moore cites Nettie Palmer’s evocative image of the censor at work:
One has to do a good deal of imagining whenever a censor is mentioned. No one ever sees him at his work; he strikes darkling; he never explains … It has been suggested that he does not, and cannot, read, and that he only takes action when he finds his elbow jogged by a little being who reminds him of a customs list that is revised only once in a century. (p. 31)
There were basically three grounds for banning:
- blasphemy i.e. offensive to the church;
- literature featuring undesirable behaviour such as crime or ’depraved’ sex (e.g. prostitution, homosexual relationships etc.); or
- sedition i.e. anything that hinted at criticism of capitalism or promoted socialism.
So Ulysses was in trouble only partly because of Bloom’s … um …’activities down on the beachfront’. It was also because of Stephen Dedelus and his mates’ parody of the Roman Catholic Mass. Australians couldn’t read E.M. Forster’s Maurice because it was an empathetic portrayal of same-sex relationships. Orwell was banned because of his criticism of conditions for workers in Down and Out in Paris and London . In some cases, snobbery was at work too: classy editions of some works were permitted for the literati, but the same material in accessible paperback was deemed unsuitable for the newly literate common man to read. Women (who apparently often led the charge to ban books), of course, had to be protected from risqué books, as children were. But there were no guidelines for publishers and it was expensive for publishers to try to second-guess what might and might not be repressed. US bestsellers were often judged too racy for Australians to read, and it was costly indeed if they had paid author advances, rights fees, printed Australian editions and for publicity – only to find that they had to pulp everything when the Censor’s heavy hand descended.
The volume of material that was banned, now revealed by Nicole Moore’s research, is extraordinary. In the 19th and early 20th century books about birth control and even magazines with adverts for contraceptives were banned because (a) they offended the church and (b) they discouraged procreation at a time when the authorities wanted Australia’s population to grow. Not only that, birth control was part of the agenda for the alleviation of poverty – which tied in with political campaigning for socialism, so advocating birth control had to be stopped and it very promptly was.
The cumulative effect of all this was more than a matter of individual titles. By quarantining cultural developments overseas, Australian authors and most of its readers were isolated from modern culture, and modernism in literature in particular. Whereas films could be cut to remove ‘objectionable material (and often was), books were either allowed or not. It is interesting to speculate on the effects of this and on the development of our literary culture…
The heroes of freedom to read are Don Chipp and Gough Whitlam who in the 1970s abolished most forms of censorship. What remains, however, is a debate about how pornography exploits vulnerable women and children, and how best modern liberal societies might prevent the spread of extremism in the internet era. Nicole Moore’s book is a valuable contribution to this debate because it clarifies the agendas of the past to inform the future.
Author: Nicole Moore
Title: The Censor’s Library
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2012
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh, $39.95