Only five pages to go but I’m so tired. Should I endure or finish these another day?
There’s no cliffhanger; no who-done-it to reveal; no expected ah-ah moment. The trials are over; banned books released; the rating system introduced … how does an author finish this story?
It’s my desire for mental clarity that encourages me to wait. The end of a story is more important than its beginning.
“Remember to keep it light; no labourious sentences.” That’s the first prompt in the template I use for writing these blog posts, but I’m not sure it’s possible this time!
It’s a proper history book. There are pages and pages of notes in the back, along with pages and pages of bibliography and, eventually, an index. The end of the story arrives before the end of the book.
The subject of Patrick Mullins’ The Trials of Portnoy is the demise, during the 1960s and 70s, of Australia’s antiquated censorship system.
I selected it from the bookshop shelf primarily based on the bright orange cover. Awkwardly, an important point did not occur to me. A challenge to censorship would involve a book I would not normally read and that the telling of that story would involve excerpts from said book.
I was focused instead on the idea of reading about the downfall of lawful restrictions on intellectual endeavour when we are subject to lawful restrictions on social activity such that intellectual endeavour becomes the viable alternative for managing one’s sense of well being. It’s becoming a theme; it’s not the first time my selection has been triggered by intriguing juxtapositions.
According to Mullins, the argument used during the trials rested on the idea of literary merit, that obscenity can be a necessary inclusion in a literary work if the aim is to illuminate our humanity in all its faults and frailties.
Ideas can be easily muddled and so it happened with the idea of literary merit. Perhaps, in part, because academics disagree, not necessarily on the big boundaries, though sometimes, but definitely on the nuance contained within. It’s a product of the system, where each justifies their position by being more nuanced than others or by holding a different combination of theories than others, all working in the same field. It’s OK. It’s good for debate. It’s how we progress.
Interestingly, the Crown’s defence team couldn’t find anyone to support its case that the book didn’t have literary merit.
And what of the legal profession who further muddled the definition of literary merit? Perhaps this happens because their profession demands confidence and intense assurance when presenting successful argument; they believe they already know what must be known, including how literary merit should be defined.
In short, I might have learnt a lot about literary merit, but I’d have to re-read with a highlighter to be sure. That’s the downside of night-time pre-slumber reading.
On a more intuitive level, I sense an increased reluctance on my part to read anything lacking merit.
But be reassured. I’m still happy to watch a bit of glib TV.
And the last five pages?
Turns out, they are a summation of the book. They capture the broad themes and events and simply condense them. A good summation, but a let down really. Bit too academic. I prefer a ending that leaves me sitting somewhere in a reflective state of mind.
I find a spot on my bookshelf and park it in it’s new home. It seems unusually battered around the edges and creased across the covers, prompting me to wonder if I was I unusually rough with it?
Oh, I remember! It got caught under the recliner a couple of time. Proper history books should be so common they become part of the furniture.
Mullins, P 2020, The Trials of Portnoy: how Penguin brought down Australia’s censorship system. Published by Scribe Publications, Brunswick, Victoria.
What are your thoughts?