How Penguin brought down Australia’s censorship system (2020)







Short-listed for the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-Fiction, New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, 2021

Long-listed for the Mark and Evette Moran ‘Nib’ Literary Award, 2020

Fifty years after the event, here is the first full account of an audacious publishing decision that — with the help of booksellers and readers around the country — forced the end of literary censorship in Australia.

For more than seventy years, a succession of politicians, judges, and government officials in Australia worked in the shadows to enforce one of the most pervasive and conservative regimes of censorship in the world. The goal was simple: to keep Australia free of the moral contamination of impure literature. Under the censorship regime, books that might damage the morals of the Australian public were banned, seized, and burned; bookstores were raided; publishers were fined; and writers were charged and even jailed. But in the 1970s, that all changed.

In 1970, in great secrecy and at considerable risk, Penguin Books Australia resolved to publish Portnoy’s Complaint— Philip Roth’s frank, funny, and profane bestseller about a boy hung up about his mother and his penis. In doing so, Penguin spurred a direct confrontation with the censorship authorities, which culminated in criminal charges, police raids, and an unprecedented series of court trials across the country.Sweeping from the cabinet room to the courtroom, The Trials of Portnoy draws on archival records and new interviews to show how Penguin and a band of writers, booksellers, academics, and lawyers determinedly sought for Australians the freedom to read what they wished — and how, in defeating the forces arrayed before them, they reshaped Australian literature and culture forever.


‘Mullins captures the excitement of this time, and also exhaustively details the multitude of ludicrous court cases that then swept the country as police confiscated contraband copies, publishers and booksellers were prosecuted, and, yes, books were burned. Anyone interested in Australian history, politics and books generally will find much food for thought in this entertaining, well-researched and carefully written history.’
— Julia Taylor, Books + Publishing

The Trials of Portnoy is full of the juice and drama and hilarity of the courtroom. […] Patrick Mullins has written an utterly diverting account of a bit of ancient Australian literary history. […] The Trials of Portnoy is a superb bringing-to-life of a time now dead, when there was a ripening of Australian culture…’
Peter Craven, The Saturday Paper

‘[Mullins’s] new book takes us on a fascinating journey through the final years of Australia’s literary censorship system, deftly telling the story of the many obscenity trials prompted by sales of Roth’s controversial novel in this country. […This] compelling account of these last days of the old censorship regime skilfully draws on a rich range of sources, including interviews with many of the key figures involved. He gives an insight not just into how the system operated and the politics involved, but also into a significant cultural moment in Australia. […] The Trials of Portnoy is a very welcome contribution to the small but significant literature about the history of censorship in Australia.’
Amanda Laugesen, Inside Story

‘A fine courtroom drama by one of Australia’s outstanding younger historians.’

— Frank Bongiorno, Australian Journal of Politics and History

‘Patrick Mullins’s new book, The Trials of Portnoy, is a literary detective story with a difference. […] Impressively researched as well as lively and engaging.’
— Craig Munro, The Australian

‘With The Trials of Portnoy, Mullins has further established himself as a first-rate historical storyteller and considerably strengthened our understanding of the history of censorship in Australia.’

— Nathan Hollier, Australian Historical Studies

‘There are few things your average patriotic Australian likes better than the authoritative clamour of some dead-eyed, bull-necked crypto-fascist bashing on the bathroom door and demanding to know what we’re reading in there. Which, for most of the twentieth century, was not much. We banned Balzac, for fuck’s sake. We banned Lawrence and Huxley and Nabokov. We banned Hemingway, Baldwin, Vidal, Salinger, Donleavy, Burroughs, Miller, and McCarthy. We banned Ulysses, then unbanned it, then realised our mistake and banned it again. We prosecuted Max Harris for publishing a poet who didn’t even exist. For a while there, the list of banned books was banned. […] This is all in Mullins’s book, if you’re interested, which you should be, because believe me the same clueless creeps are still in charge. Mullins wrote a biography of Billy McMahon, so he understands better than most that the dominant genre of Australian political life is farce. The Trials of Portnoy is about a rare instance of sanity prevailing, though of course a regime of unrelieved idiocy doesn’t just collapse of its own accord. It needs to be brought down. A few cheeky student publications were never going to achieve anything. No, it took a novel of perverted genius, a novel backed by a major publisher, a novel about a compulsive onanist that’s so funny that anything it touches instantly becomes ridiculous. Fight farce with farce was the basic idea. And hoo-boy did it work.’
— James Ley, Australian Book Review

‘Patrick Mullins’ new book, The Trials of Portnoy (Scribe), tells the true story of how Portnoy’s Complaint was declared illegal throughout the Commonwealth, and how, eventually, it became a book we were allowed to own and read. Mullins is shrewd about the whole long history of Australian over-censorship, and why we, predominantly a group of white Britons down the bottom of Asia, were so particularly obsessed with staying “clean”, and so frightened of losing social and sexual control. […] But Mullins also shows how we started to say, more and more: please, let literature free. Let us have it.’
— Sean O’Beirne, The Monthly

The Trials of Portnoy dramatically demonstrates how Penguin and a band of bookstores, especially those run by publisher Angus & Robertson, plus a legion of writers, readers, academics, lawyers and journalists, managed to defeat the forces of censorship in Australia. By using Portnoy’s Complaint as a battering ram, they helped reshape antipodean culture. […] In this fascinating book, Mullins documents how, even when expressing disgust with aspects of the novel, judges and magistrates throughout Australia made markedly different decisions.’
— Ross Fitzgerald, Quadrant

‘A masterful blend of literary history and suspense […] Featuring contraband print runs, vice squads, and a resistance of publishers, writers, and booksellers who fought for Australians to have the freedom to read what they want, this is history writing at its best.’
— Readings, Carlton

‘Thorough research, forensic examination of evidence and a light wit.’
— Mark Thomas, Canberra Times

‘An illuminating tale about book censorship in Australia.’
— Kirkus Reviews

‘[A] wonderful account of how a group of brave publishers, booksellers and academics brought down Australia’s ridiculous censorship regime.’
— Barry Reynolds, Herald-Sun


Portnoy’s Complaint, Wendy Bacon, and censorship’s controversial history in Australia| ABC The Drum | 29 June 2020

Article: ‘The little book, Portnoy’s Complaint, that changed censorship and the pioneer activist who says we should still be concerned’, The Drum, ABC Online, Ruby Cornish, 30 June 2020

Extract: ‘Trials of Portnoy: when Penguin fought for literature and liberty’, The Conversation, 26 June 2020

(Interview) ‘Dirty books! How Portnoy’s Complaint changed Australia forever’, Radio New Zealand, Nine-to-Noon, Kathryn Ryan, 4 June 2020

(Article) ‘How Portnoy’s Complaint changed Australia forever’, Radio New Zealand, Nine-to-Noon, 4 June 2020

(Interview) ‘Australia’s censorship system brought down by Penguin’, ABC Late Night Live, Phillip Adams, 8 June 2020

(Article) ‘Naughty book that rewrote the censorship debate’, City News, Danielle Nohra, 25 June 2020