Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Censor's Library

Staff Review, by Chris Saliba

Why did Australian officials ban so much great literature? The answer according to Nicole Moore is rather prosaic: simply because they could. Australian censorship from the 1920s to the 1980s is an often shambolic and messy affair, with no strong organising principle. Customs officials who intercepted books were intellectually lazy, banning material on the most arbitrary grounds.  When Moore’s research leads her to the banned bodice-ripper Forever Amber, a book she takes particular delight in, she ponders whether Australian censors even found reading for pleasure obscene.  

Nicole Moore’s superb history of Australian censorship becomes more and more astonishing as you wade through the rich array of literature that was banned without much serious thought or consideration.  No wonder the likes of Barry Humphries bemoaned how culturally backward Australia was in the 1950s when he was growing up. About half way through The Censor’s Library, an almost exasperated Moore wonders if Australia’s censors simply found reading itself to be an obscenity. 

The reason for this depressing judgement is Moore’s personal discovery of the banned Forever Amber (1944), by American novelist Kathleen Winsor. What was originally meant as research turned into a week-long orgy of delicious reading. Forever Amber is not great literature like we find in Tolstoy and Austen, but nonetheless it represents reading for pleasure. For some a guilty pleasure, as we don’t read these types of books for moral improvement, but for escape and fantasy. According to Nicole Moore, there’s nothing particularly offensive or obscene about Forever Amber. The novel was a huge international success (it sold three million copies) and was adapted into a Hollywood film in 1947, directed by Otto Preminger. “The book’s banning in Australia throws the nature of reading itself into question,” writes Moore. “Is the pleasure of reading itself obscene?”

Why did Australia persist with such a severe censorship regime from the 1920s onwards, until it began to be dismantled in the late 1960s by then Customs Minister Don Chipp?  Even the list of banned books itself was kept secret. Australian readers really lived in the dark. It wasn’t until 1958 that the banned list would become public. According to Moore, the reason that Australian officials banned so many books was simply because they could. Some officials later confessed to banning books simply because they were appointed as censors. They had to ban something, so the logic went, or they weren’t doing their jobs.  The sorry tale of censorship in Australia is one of a confused, shambolic, arbitrary and often quite senseless program. Customs officials often banned books out of sheer ignorance and intellectual laziness.

This attitude went all the way up to the federal government. When the British lifted its ban on Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover in 1960, it took Australia another five years to lift its ban. The Menzies Government held a cabinet meeting in 1961 and decided to uphold the ban. Australians weren’t officially allowed to read the controversial novel until 1965. Even more ridiculous, J. D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye was banned while it was on US university reading lists. Australia was indeed an embarrassing cultural backwater, consumed by fear and anxiety, determined to keep its national psyche firmly repressed. There seemed a real worry that by letting Australian citizens choose their own reading the country would turn into some sort of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The quality and intellectual interest of the books banned is quite shocking. The heart sinks to read the long list of brilliant books prohibited. Can you imagine today’s cultural and intellectual life without Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, Boccaccio’s The Decameron or Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

When trying to pinpoint a clear reason for the strict censorship that Australia endured, Moore suggests a fear of aberrant sexuality. Literature featuring homosexuality was the most heavily banned. Moore starkly writes that the aim of censorship was to try and maintain a national identity and consciousness that was “white, clean and reproductive.” The censors hoped that by restricting literature that explored sexuality, uncomfortable ideas (Simone de Beauvoir’s essay on the Marquis de Sade, for example) or the dark recesses of the psyche, that imagination and thought could be kept pure. Once censorship was lifted in the seventies, the years of repression spewed forth an avalanche of almost Rabelaisian expression.

One last note should explain the book’s title. The Censor’s Library refers to the reference library where Customs officials sent intercepted and banned books. Moore had heard of the library, and eventually tracked it down. Seven stories underground in the National Archives building in Sydney, it contained 793 boxes of books.

For those wishing to explore the history of Australia’s intellectual and artistic repression, its attempts at mind control, then Nicole Moore’s The Censor’s Library makes for a comprehensive and enlightened guide.

The Censor’s Library, by Nicole Moore. Published by University of Queensland Press. ISBN: 9780702239168  RRP: $39.95