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A Popular Vision: The Arts and the Left in New Zealand 1930-1950

The Critics

The Critics

Criticism of the publishing society's lack of ideological purity was focused on the cultural publications. Both the relative proportions of literary and political material and the nature of the literature itself attracted disapproval. Among the members of the management committee who voiced their dissent were Communist Party members H. L. Verry, who chaired the society's publicity committee, and the ubiquitous R. F. Griffin, who chaired the selection committee for a time. The latter also criticised the management of the society as undemocratic, and resigned from the management committee in anger in March 1945. An unsigned typescript from that time, which put forward proposals for solving the society's financial crisis, expressed similar concerns about the society's priorities to those Griffin had raised a few years earlier over the lack of commitment to working class literature demonstrated by the Wellington Co-operative Book Society. The author objected to the proportion of 'academic and highbrow' material while only 20-25 per cent of the current publishing programme represented 'progressive' and 'popular' titles, and suggested scrapping 75 per cent of the current list, deleting such authors as Sargeson, Curnow, Holcroft and Vogt. The balance could then be used for good reprints and more non-fiction material. He or she argued:

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We are supposed to be a part of the labour movement, according to conference resolutions, so why have we little or nothing of concern to that movement? Some matters of interest and importance are Banking, Housing, Cost-of-Living, health, industrial unrest, etc. etc. Would such manuscripts be drier or less saleable than verse or stories which are almost equivalent to sur-realism in art, they are so remote from the interests, of the ordinary man and women?23

(The author of these comments added: 'The initiative in the formation of the P.P.S. came from me and I did much of the preliminary work.') At a PPS conference in October 1944 Griffin urged the production of more 'topical publications' and fewer 'ephemeral books fully bound'.24 Similar concern was expressed by the Christchurch branch of the Communist Party. The Party branch bulletin welcomed the formation of a society through which 'books, pamphlets and periodicals which are of inestimable value to the working class and to all progressive movements of the people are distributed. . . . [and] The Party itself is able to obtain a constant stream of valuable literature', but added the warning that without Communist Party involvement it might become

dominated by left (or merely liberal) intellectuals, as has happened in another centre in the past. The result in that instance was that the more expensive type of literature was given preference, while pamphlets and periodicals which workers needed were in short supply. [The reference is evidently to Modern Books in Wellington.] We want to help create the right balance between all types of literature which will be of the greatest service to [the] progressive movement.25

Comments such as these drew a distinction between political, popular or working class writing and cultural and 'highbrow' literature. Other criticisms were, however, based on a conception of what might constitute a progressive or working class literary culture. The Christchurch Co-operative Book Society, for example, objected to a decision taken by the PPS committee in 1944 to obtain rights for reprinting popular fiction such as 'Rebecca or the detective stories of Dorothy Sayers' in order to increase the society's capital. For one thing, a major policy decision of this kind taken without consultation with the member societies constituted 'a breach of faith with the partners in the Society' and violated the democratic principles of the movement. It was also, in the opinion of the Christchurch committee, contrary to the purpose of the publishing society which was to publish 'books of social content and New Zealand literature'. As an alternative to the proposal the CCBS urged that

the choice of books suitable for reprinting should always be related to the objects of the Society and consideration should be given to books by Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Steinbeck, Richard Wright, H. G. Wells, Sholokov, page 150 Gorki, Anand, Bernard Shaw, Sean O'Casey, K.S. Prichard, Brian Penton and Rex Warner.26

It also suggested that consideration be given to reprinting early New Zealand books. The publishing society's 1943 national conference, which involved del-egates from each of the shops as well as the management committee, passed a resolution stating:

That we approve of the present plans for future production, but would like to see a greater proportion of what might be termed popular material of a progressive character as well as the encouragement of socially significant fiction or short stories.

The conference also passed a remit committing the society to support the 'Labour movement'.27 The CCBS stated its objection more bluntly when it conveyed to the publishing society in January 1945 its opinion that publications such as Poems by Clyde Carr and Verse by New Zealand Children 'Christchurch considers should not bear the imprint of the Progressive Publishing Society'.28 In November 1944 the Christchurch board advised that it was withdrawing its support from Co-op Books after the next issue.

It was New Zealand New Writing, however, which attracted the most controversy. Four numbers of New Zealand New Writing were published between December 1942 and March 1945, and a fifth was in production when the society folded. Initiated by Professor Ian Gordon, who edited all four issues, the series was modelled on the Penguin New Writing (1940-50) published in England and edited by John Lehmann. The initial cover design for the New Zealand version was an imitation of the Penguin cover, and the introduction to the first issue acknowledged Lehmann's New Writing as its 'godfather'. The debate which surrounded New Zealand New Writing stemmed from specific conceptions of a proletarian, socially-conscious or popular literature, with comparison drawn implicidy with Lehmann's leftish publication and explicidy with the earnesdy anti-fascist and proletarian Australian New Writing.

Only a handful of the contributions to New Zealand New Writing would have satisfied those who looked to it for a manifesto of socialist realism. Of the poetry there was Ron Meek's 'Stalingrad 1943', the title of which is self-explanatory, and 'To Uncertain Leaders' by Alun Falconer, which presents a class view of the war in the threat of the common soldier to the makers of war to 'give liberty to those for whom we kill'.29 Two stories by Greville Texidor, a refugee in New Zealand in the 1940s, who had fought with the anarchist militia in Spain during the Civil War, challenge the insularity and complacency of New Zealand society in the 1930s with the more urgent political struggles being fought elsewhere. In 'Home Front' a member of the International Brigade visits the home of a New Zealand page 151 Black and white cover image of New Zealand New Writing volunteer who has been killed in action; the parents believe their son had been working with the Quaker children's relief agency. The juxtaposition of the real outside world with the 'stale', 'stifling' atmosphere of the New Zealand hill country farm is encapsulated in an image of 'mud ... so deep it oozed over the tops of the good boots Rex had been given in Spain.'30 'An Annual Affair' uses the device of a child narrator to highlight the protected innocence of New Zealand's relationship with the outside world: the setting is the annual parish picnic, and the cosy afternoon of tea, sandwiches and sun is darkened by the persistent talk of a young university student of the imminent prospect of war. Arthur Jackson-Thomas contributed a piece of documentary realism which was to spark some debate. A 'Fragment of an autobiography which is extremely unlikely ever to be written', it described, in somewhat melodramatic tone, the hardship faced by a young couple in Wellington during the depression: 'The Depression was not yet showing many signs of wearing thin; I was unemployed, Fi was pregnant and having a very bad time.'31 There was also an allegorical, pacifist story by H.C.D. Somerset, an 'industrial' poem entided 'Coal' by Anton Vogt, and social realism from Frank Sargeson in an extract from That Summer and the sketch 'Growing up'.

These made up only about 15 per cent of the total content of the four issues.

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On the whole the contributions to New Zealand New Writing were not political. The contributors to the series included Allen Curnow, A.RD. Fairburn, Kendrick Smithyman, J.R. Hervey, M.H. Holcroft, Roderick Finlayson, Helen Shaw, Anna Kavan and Texidor, along with many others whose literary careers were less notable. As with the PPS publications overall, the writing ranged widely in subject matter and was, at best, inconsistent in terms of literary quality—from Fairburn's poetic musings on love and death and Allen Curnow's more complex meditations on the cultural influence of New Zealand's geographical isolation and landscape, to an extract from a Fijian diary by Bill Pearson and a descriptive sketch entided 'Eruption at Tarawera' complete with classical references. There were also reviews and three critical essays: an extract from M.H. Holcroft's The Waiting Hills, which assessed the positive impact of the depression on New Zealand writers in that it gave them 'time to think', an essay by Ian Gordon on Katherine Mansfield, and an essay by R. Seymour on 'A Present Tendency in New Zealand Literature', which sharply criticised writers such as Curnow, Holcroft and E. H. McCormick for their 'false nostalgia' and romanticising of 'the position of the New Zealander in time and place'.32

Not surprisingly, war was the subject of approximately half of the series' content. Contributions such as 'My Ship was Bombed—Letters from a Merchant Seaman' and '5 Poems from the Pacific Campaign' focused on the immediate, personal experience of war—pain, fear, heroism, individual survival. The prose pieces generally looked at the local, social or domestic context of war. A. P. Gaskell's 'Tidings of Joy', for example, describes a Christmas party which is marred by the recent news of two friends missing or killed in action. In Helen Shaw's 'Two Fathers' a young pregnant mother whose husband is away fighting faces the moral censure of her small rural community when she befriends an American serviceman. The war was of course topical. But the literature it produced in New Zealand New Writing did not, as one of Ian Gordon's critics defined the necessary purpose of art in this time, take a 'stand somewhere in relation to the issues of the struggle against fascism'.33

Critics of the publication's political insipidity looked across the Tasman for an example of the anti-fascist, 'proletarian' literature they expected of New Writing. The first issue of Australian New Writing, which appeared shortly after New Zealand's, was edited by a communist literary triumvirate of Katharine Susannah Prichard, Bernard Smith and George Farwell, and was prefaced with a quotation from Miles Franklin on the inherently political character of art (as a disturber of the status quo) and a foreword which placed literature and art within the context of the anti-fascist and class struggle. Its contents included strikes, unemployment, war and union politics, and a critical essay on 'Art and the Working Class'. It was reviewed in Co-op Books by H. L. Verry as 'a bold attempt to create working class literature'.34 Another critic measured the con- page 153 tents of the third New Zealand New Writing against the second number of Australian New Writing and concluded:

It is a breathtaking literary impertinence to the people of this country that N.Z.N.W. No. 3 contains in its prose only one very minor hint that there is such a thing as a war on, one broad hint and two minor hints that there are social problems among the people as well as individual ones.35

The Christchurch Co-operative Book Society, meanwhile, greeted the first number of New Zealand New Writing with the resolution that

whatever the literary merit or the sales value of New Zealand New Writing may be, it has completely failed to represent the type of writing in which the progressive movement is chiefly interested.

The society was evidently no more impressed by subsequent issues, for at its 1944 annual general meeting several criticisms were made along with a suggestion that the name be changed 'to prevent association with "Australian New Writing" and "English New Writing" as the latter publications were far superior in general content.'36 An alternative Left New Writing was for a time mooted. Failing this, the Christchurch society requested that 'at least one article of a sociological nature, in which category musical, dramatic, art, and literary criticism might be included, should appear in each issue.'37 One reader wrote of the first issue that 'it is . . . not easy to lose the idea that one is reading a University Review', and went on to observe of the poetry, with particular reference to Allen Curnow, that 'it showed a deplorable trend best seen in T. S. Eliot, to enlarge the gap already manifest between culture and the people.'38 In Dunedin the series was 'sharply criticised' and a more active policy of soliciting manuscripts suggested.39

There were other critics, however, who felt that New Zealand New Writing suffered from an overdose of grim social realism. Wrote a somewhat embattled editor in Co-op Books:

I am told ... it is too gloomy (Mr. James Harris); it does not reflect the life of these islands (Mr. Parkyn); it is a great job (Mr. Holcroft); it should not contain stories about consumptives (Mr. Harding); it should (Sydney Bulletin);... the poetry is good but the prose is bad; the prose is good but the poetry is incomprehensible . . .40

In fact, one is more likely to be struck by a strong tone of nostalgia and romanticism than by overdone realism; stories of childhood experience are especially prevalent. Nevertheless, in the opinion of a number of its critics New Zealand New Writing was infused with a 'cult of gloom',41 which was epitomised by the Jackson-Thomas story, and dominated by a spare, realist narrative style page 154 (employed to most effect by Frank Sargeson). One critic considered the title of the series

a little too slavishly imitative? I thought the trend in New Zealand literature would be deliberately aimed at establishing our own culture; this looks like an echo of John Lehmann. First thing we know we will have simply replaced the Holy Trinity of Spender, Auden, Isherwood with our own 'more English than the English'—Three Graces, Mason, Curnow, Sargeson. Don't encourage this neo-Sargeson cult too much.... Every second N.Z. writer is developing literary parsimony . . .42

This is, in fact, a curious comparison given the lack of obviously left-wing content in New Zealand New Writing, let alone that much of Auden and Isherwood's writing in the 1930s was hardly in the social realist genre of Sargeson to which the writer particularly objected. But W.J. Scott in a more perceptive review of the second issue also complained about the earnest and dreary tone of the first effort:

There is no doubt that No. 1 stank a bit. Faint, stale smells of the depression and the self-pitying 'thirties hung over it; words were too often second-hand and slightly rancid; its tone flat, grey, humourless and sour; the conversational-colloquial technique monotonously similar in too many stories.

He cautioned against what he called the 'dumb ox' technique which 'unless done with great skill as by Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson and Sargeson at their best . . . has serious defects.'43 It is interesting that such criticism did not define the 'neo-Sargeson cult' as a specifically New Zealand narrative style. The dominant critical assessment of Sargeson's short stories has seen his distinctive, laconic style as an attempt to reproduce (it did in fact 'produce') a popular New Zealand idiom. To his early stories has been attributed the discovery of an authentic New Zealand literary voice. By contrast, the debate over New Zealand New Writing located Sargeson within the context of the questions surrounding social realism and socialist realism in the 1930S-1940s. This perspective has to a large extent been lost in the subsequent reading of Sargeson in terms of the nationalist programme of identifying a distinctive New Zealand voice. New Zealand New Writing, in so far as it was an expression of cultural nationalism, was conceived, and received, as a medium for the publication of writing by New Zealanders rather than of a definably New Zealand writing.

The news was not all bad, however. The Labour Party's Standard, for example, one of the series' greatest fans, enthusiastically wrote of the Jackson-Thomas story: 'From a sociological point of view it is the finest document, probably, in which a New Zealander has epitomised (in this case with clarity and intensity) the suffering and ignominy inflicted on people through the inequities page 155 of [the capitalist] system'.44 And while some critics quibbled over the strength of the publication's anti-fascist commitment, the Standard greeted New Zealand New Writing as a positive contribution to the war effort in a different sense:

'Literature is a cardinal feature of the civilisation we are in arms to defend. Looked at in that light, 'New Zealand New Writing' constitutes a snook cocked at totalitarianism; since an indication that we are in sound morale intellectually is as definite a rebuff to Goebbels as the defeat of the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain was to Goering or as the defeat of the Afrika Korps has been to Rommel.45

While the other PPS manuscripts were chosen by the selection committee through a process of discussion and consultation, the selection for New Zealand New Writing was the sole responsibility of the editor. Gordon, a self-confessed 'Tory' and the 'alien cuckoo in their nest',46 found himself in conflict with the committee over the series. He responded to his critics by rejecting the idea that literature should or could be made 'to serve a cause or interest', sanctioning his statements with a quotation from Stephen Spender's Life and the Poet (1942). The selection criteria were literary merit, sincerity and 'contact with life. But life includes what goes on in the writer's head, not merely what is going on in the street outside'; 'Above all', he stated, 'I have avoided mere partisan writing'. From his point of view New Zealand New Writing was intended simply to provide 'one publication in this country in which writers (established and otherwise) could have printed their contributions of a literary nature.'47 His intention was explicitly not a left-wing literature.

What was envisaged by a number of the critics of both New Zealand New Writing and the society's cultural publications as a whole was not only a literature of social comment and political commitment, but a 'proletarian literature' in the stricter sense of writing by the working class, about and for the working class. R. F. Griffin, in an early write-up of the PPS, outlined a proposal for 'a series along the lines of English fact, under such tides as "I work on the wharf", "diary of a miner", "diary of a freezing worker", "diary of a farmer", etc', and the Co-operative Book News thought it necessary to point out that the proposed New Zealand New Writing would offer 'opportunities to writers of the middle class as well as the working class'.48 Co-op Books hoped that the Progressive Publishing Society would stimulate a 'popular' literature in a broader sense, a literature that would represent

the attitudes and values of New Zealanders now. Not just the vocal New Zealanders in universities and newspaper offices and Left Wing circles, but people in trams and pubs and milk bars, members of 'the Plunket' and helpers of 'the Patriotic', men in camp and girls in factories—what do we all live by? page 156 And who are the writers who will interpret—in novels, in plays, in short stories—the New Zealand scene in the 1940's?49

In the case of New Zealand New Writing they were (as identified in the 'notes on contributors' in each volume): civil servants (9), teachers (8), journalists (4) and writers (4), academics (2), a filmmaker, a student, a clergyman, a bank officer, a farmer, a compositor, a gardener and a freezing worker and trade unionist. Four were identified as serving in the Armed Forces. They were predominantly, in other words, people 'in universities and newspaper offices and Left Wing circles'. New Zealand New Writing was no more popular in this respect than was the membership of the society's management committee.

Although there are insufficient records available to identify the contributors of all of the manuscripts received by the society, that comment may equally be applied to its authors generally. Most of them were already published writers, a fact which did not surprise one, D. W. Ballantyne, who considered misguided the PPS's belief that 'the land's full of potential Hemingways and Saroyans'.50 (Frank Sargeson undoubtedly would have agreed with this, for in Tomorrow he had rejected Winston Rhodes' romantic notion of the 'worker-artist', of writers 'who work in mines and factories, and after knocking off, unless there's a political meeting on, or political work to do, they sit down and bang away at their typewriters and use up the energy that their fellow-workers let loose in being human in whatever way appeals to them most.'51 Sargeson's own experience of the difficulty of reconciling the need to write and the need to make a living showed him the fallacy and the luxury of this idea.) Furthermore, with the exception of a few advertisements in union journals, which did not specifically emphasise the theme of left-wing or working class writing, there is no evidence that the Progressive Publishing Society actively solicited material from working class writers.

New Zealand New Writing was, however, popular in another sense. The most successful of all the PPS publications, the first issue sold 5000 copies (its first edition oversold by 800), the others around 7000 each.

23 Unsigned letter to R. S. Parker, chairman, PPS, 6 Mar. 1945. WCBS Papers: 13, 7

24 Sutch, 'Conference Report', CB, Dec. 1944 (v.1, n.14), p.[3]

25 Communist Party of New Zealand (Christchurch branch). Bulletin, 27 Oct. 1942. Jack Locke Deposit: additional material: item 5. University of Canterbury Library

26 CCBS minutes, 19 May 1944

27 'National Conference of Progressive Publishing Society', InPrint, 30 June 1943, p. [3]; 'Politics and Progressive Publishing', CB, Nov. 1943 (v.1, n1i), p.4

28 CCBS minutes, 11 Jan. 1945

29 A. Falconer, To Uncertain Leaders', New Zealand New Writing, 3, June 1944, p.26

30 G. Texidor, 'Home Front', NZNW, 1, Dec 1942, pp.64, 66

31 A. Jackson-Thomas, 'Unto Us', ibid., p.39

32 M.H. Holcroft, 'Return to New Zealand', ibid., p.51; R. Seymour, 'A Present Tendency in New Zealand Literature, NZNW, 4, Mar. 1945, pp.31-2

33 E. Locke, correspondence, CB, Feb. 1945 (v.2, n.2), p.[3]

34 H. L. Verry, 'New Writing in Australia', CB, Jan. 1944 (v.1, n.3), p.5

35 P. G. Harding, 'Australia's Baby Dwarfs Ours', CB, Sept. 1944 (v.1, n.11), p.[4]

36 CCBS minutes of AGM, 27 Oct. 1943, minutes, 16 Oct. 1944

37 CCBS minutes, n Aug. 1944; CB, Sept. 1944  (v.1, n.11), p.[6]

38 J. Campbell, CZW, Jan. 1943 (v.i, n.12), p.[4]

39 CB, Sept. 1944 (v.1, n.11), p. [6], Oct. 1944 (v.1, n.12), p.[3]

40 I. Gordon, 'New Zealand New Writing and its Critics', CB, Nov. 1944 (v.1, n.13), p.1

41 I. M. Cluett, correspondence, ibid., Jan. 1945  (v.2, n.1),p.[3]

42 G. Ingham, 'N.Z. New Writing Criticised', CBN, Feb. 1943 (v.1, n.13), p.[5]

43 W. J. Scott, 'New Zealand New Writing N0.2', CB, Nov. 1943 (v.1, n.1), p.6

44 Standard, 7 Jan. 1943, p.2

45 Ibid.

46 Gordon, 'In Memoriam "NZNW", New Zealand Listener, 21 Jan. 1984 (v.106, n.2293), p.31; interview with author, 9 Dec. 1986

47 'New Zealand New Writing and its Critics'

48 Griffin, 'Publishing and Distribution— Co-operative Efforts', CBN, June 1942 (v.1, n.6), p.2; 'Recent N.Z. Publications', ibid., Oct. 1942 (v.1, n.10), p.[4]

49 This Culture', CB, Dec. 1943 (v.1, n.2), p.1

50 D. W. Ballantyne, "Vocal New Zealand-ers"', ibid., Apr. 1944 (v.1, n.6), p.[3]

51 F. Sargeson, correspondence, Tomorrow, 4 Aug. 1937 (v.3, n.20), p.632