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

The Market

The Market

Ian Gordon's recollection of a conflict of interest between himself and the rest of the committee, and the strong dissatisfaction from some quarters over New Zealand New Writing and other publications, suggests that the society was rent by serious conflict, both within its management committee and within the wider constituency—the cooperative book movement—that it represented. This is not the recollection of all members, however. Opinions differ as to the depth and the balance of the division between the society's left-wing and its less politically-minded members. On the whole, it seems that the general desire to page 157 foster a New Zealand literature prevailed over the narrower (and as we shall see, impractical) interest only in political or working class books. Certainly in its published statements the society presented itself in this broader light:

For long we in New Zealand have felt the need of a medium through which our indigenous culture might be expressed. We have been the last of the Dominions to feel our own feet culturally. . . . a publishing society has been formed to make available New Zealand works for New Zealand people.

This society aims to publish books, pamphlets, verse, by New Zealanders on subjects which interest New Zealanders. The Society does not aim to make profits—it aims to be a progressive force in every field.52

The terms 'progressive' and 'New Zealand' in this context were not mutually exclusive. The society's commitment to supporting an independent New Zealand literature was in itself progressive at a time when New Zealand was still largely a colonial culture. Its appearance was a symptom of and response to a need within a provincial cultural infrastructure.

A glance through the New Zealand National Bibliography at books published in the 1930s and 1940s indicates the gap there was in New Zealand publishing at this time in the areas of social, political and economic critique and cultural literature where the Progressive Publishing Society's interest lay. Items in these fields are scattered thinly amongst school and church jubilees, religious tracts, occasional local histories, books on flora and fauna, gardening and the like, many biographies and the occasional Communist Party pamphlet,

The years immediately prior to the establishment of the PPS had in fact seen a significant expansion in the publication of New Zealand books. In the years 1939 to 1940 the total number of books published nearly doubled, compared with a 30 per cent increase from 1937 to 1938 and a drop of 20 per cent in 1941. These figures were quoted by John Harris in an article in New Zealand Libraries in October 1942. Harris estimated that 21 per cent of titles published in the period 1936-41 were in the areas of 'politics, economics, law and sociology', representing less than 'science, technology and the useful arts' (the largest category at 32 per cent). Legal publishing made up a large part of this figure. The larger increases in the years 1939-40 were in the categories of literature, 'education, sports and pastimes' and reference, rather than in political, social and economic literature. Moreover, most material of this kind that was published was not the product of independent publishing efforts. Rather,

a large proportion of the material is the result of planned publication—books written not on the off-chance of publication by some printing or publishing firm, but at the special instigation of an institution or official body.53

These included the New Zealand Council for Educational Research, which was page 158 the principal source of educational publishing aside from school books; the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, which published mostly pamphlets; the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, the Dairy Research Institute and the Cawthron Institute in the scientific area; and the Department of Internal Affairs with the centennial publishing programme.

The centennial publications of 1939-40 had been, in scale, the most significant publishing venture to date in the area of investigation of New Zealand society and culture. To mark the hundredth anniversary of European political sovereignty in New Zealand the government produced, along with an orchestra, a touring art exhibition, local music and drama festivals, parades, and the centrepiece centennial exhibition in Wellington, 30 publications in magazine format entitled Making New Zealand. Pictorial Surveys of a Century, and the Historical Surveys, a series of 12 works of around 30,000 words each commissioned by the National Historical Committee. The centennial publications were motivated in a sense by the same object that W. B. Sutch attributed to the Progressive Publishing Society—to 'know about New Zealand'—and were also intended for a popular market. They were, however, essentially a self-congratulatory exercise, as their occasion and official status required. The Pictorial Surveys were designed to be a 'presentation of the Dominion's history in a popular and easily assimilated form',54 an illustrated history emphasising economic prosperity and material advancement as the measure and achievement of a century of progress. They were unashamedly 'an exercise, albeit restrained, in self-gratulation and satisfying reflection'.55 The Historical Surveys, more substantial works, were intended to be scholarly, yet readable, popular studies. The series included E. H. McCormick's Letters and Art in New Zealand, F.L.W. Wood's New Zealand in the World, J. C. Beaglehole's The Discovery of New Zealand and Oliver Duff's New Zealand Now.

The centennial publishing programme was to become the basis of the War History Branch and Historical Publications Branch of the Department of Internal Affairs, and can be seen as the precursor of the New Zealand Literary Fund and Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. To point out the limitations of a government-sponsored exercise of this kind is not to deny its long-term significance, both in giving an impetus to New Zealand historical writing and as an experiment in state cultural funding, nor the quality of several of the historical surveys, notably those by Wood and McCormick. The subject of religion was dropped from the Historical Surveys series as too contentious, and a chapter on the Waikato land confications excised from James Cowan's Pioneers and Settlers. L. C. Webb's Government in New Zealand and McCormick's Letters and Art in New Zealand were submitted by the editorial committee to the Prime Minister before publication (the latter because of concern about 'the extended discussion given to John A. Lee's novels'56 ). The limitation of such works as social or political critique is made more explicit, however, by the rejection, not once but page 159 three rimes, of the manuscript on social services written by W. B. Sutch. Sutch's original manuscript was rejected by the committee, who felt that it was too controversial, contained too much 'social and political background' and was too long. A revised version was submitted to the government (at the express request of the Prime Minister), and when negotiations stalled over the final chapter Sutch withdrew the manuscript. He then substantially revised the survey but this version too was rejected by the government.57 This second manuscript was published by the Wellington Co-operative Book Society in 1941 as Poverty and Progress in New Zealand; the first (revised) version was published in England the following year as The Quest for Security in New Zealand.

The non-fiction publishing of Whitcombe and Tombs and A.H. and A. W. Reed, at the time the two giants of New Zealand publishing as they remained until the 1970s, is not unfairly described in Sutch's words: 'text-books (of a kind), books on birds or Maoris, or missionaries', with a strong emphasis on school books in the former's case and religious books in the latter's. Reed's, which was founded in 1907 as a distributor of Sunday School literature, had only begun to move into publishing in the early 1930s, and continued its spiritual emphasis with a predominance in its first years of books on missionaries, slowly expanding into biography, popular history and pioneer reminiscences. For Whitcombe and Tombs, the oldest New Zealand publishing company (founded in 1882) and by far the larger of the two, publishing was secondary to its principal business of bookselling and printing. Nor was this an area in which any role had been played by the Caxton Press, which published mainly poetry with occasional prose fiction and literary criticism. Caxton was distinguished as much by its standards of production and design as by its importance in supporting New Zealand literature, as was the work of Bob Lowry and Ron Holloway in Auckland. Its editions were mostly of fewer than 200 copies and often fewer than 100. Thistledown (1935), a volume of three poems by Denis Glover, and Three Poems by Allen Curnow (1935) were published in editions of 40 and 50 respectively. Glover's Thirteen Poems (1939) was published in an edition of 30, 15 of which were for sale. Included in Caxton's 1941 catalogue were limited editions of Nastagio and the Obdurate Lady, a tale from The Decameron, with 15 out of a print run of 25 for sale, and The Adventures of Chanticleer and Partlet in an edition of 50. Its projected market was clearly different from that envisaged by the Progressive Publishing Society with print runs of 5000 for its topical pamphlets, and higher for New Zealand New Writing. 58

Harris's figures also showed the small amount of 'imaginative' literature being published. Fiction, poetry and drama constituted 11 per cent of books published in this period (1936-41), and the bulk of New Zealand publishing at this time was of 'informative' works. Caxton, small and discriminating, was the only significant medium of literary publishing. Whitcombe's published novels only occasionally, approaching this area with extreme caution. In general New page 160 Zealand novels were published in England, with an arrangement sometimes made for a few hundred copies to be printed for the New Zealand market. In this respect, with the exception of the Caxton Press, New Zealand booksellers and publishers remained, as J. C. Beaglehole described the book trade in the 1920s, 'colonies of a British publishing empire'.59 Nor, with the demise of Tomorrow, was there a national journal which provided a regular forum for the publication of serious short fiction and poetry. The New Zealand Listener, founded in 1939, printed a small amount of verse and fiction, mostly light and humorous; it was not to develop as a significant medium of literary publishing until M.H. Holcroft became editor in 1949. Caxton's Book—a 'miscellany' of 'Articles. Fiction. Poems. Satire. Criticism. Engravings'60 —was a small, elaborate publication which displayed Glover's flair for typography, and appeared only occasionally (there were nine issues between 1942 and 1947). The emergence of the Progressive Publishing Society also coincided with a period of reduced output from Caxton while Glover was overseas on military service.

The Progressive Publishing Society also filled a vacuum in providing an outlet for the 'mute inglorious Miltons and the village Hampdens'. As well as publishing work by 'established' writers such as Curnow, Fairburn and Holcroft the society apparently tapped a vein of aspiring literati. In the 12 months to April 1944 it received 'over 200 manuscripts' according to Freedom to Publish, excluding those submitted for New Zealand New Writing. New Zealand New Writing alone attracted over the same period 523 contributions. Co-op Books recorded that 30-40 manuscripts were received each week. A gradual shift in the balance of non-fiction and literary titles published by the society, with an increasing proportion of literary titles, may have reflected the nature of the manuscripts it was receiving as the society became better known. The desire to maintain an even balance was expressed more than once by the management committee and by the national conference.

Even allowing for a publisher's customary exaggeration, these figures are significant. They reflect, quite simply, the small amount of New Zealand publishing at this time. The initial success of the society in financial terms further attests to the opportunity there was for New Zealand publishing and bookselling. Between January 1942 and February 1943 the society achieved total sales of £2230 and was distributing 34 New Zealand publications. Publicity material was carried in 57 publications, and 70 shops were added to its distribution list over November-December 1942, contributing to a total of 300 agents by February 1944. The society was also represented in Australia by the firm Robertson and Mullens, though without great success (it was intended to circularise the Australian book trade direcdy in future). Between January and December 1943 monthly turnover increased from £144 to £1300. Gross sales, of imports and PPS publications, totalled £9000-9500 in 1943, £9600 in the 1944-5 financial year.

page 161

The timing of the venture was a major factor in the positive response to the Progressive Publishing Society. The strong market for books generally in the mid war years has been commented on in the previous chapter. The particular demand for topical pamphlets which was experienced by the cooperative bookshops is also reflected in sales of PPS publications of this kind. In June 1943 Britain Marches with Russia had sold 5000 copies, Sutch's Workers and the War Effort 2500 (slightly disappointing—5000 were printed) and Fascist Japan 2000. War was not the only subject which sold: the society had also sold 5000 copies of Venereal Disease. The Shadow over New Zealand War conditions, along with import licensing restrictions, provided a boost for local publishing as well as bookselling. As Ian Gordon later commented on the success of New Zealand New Writing, 'reading matter (to put it no higher) was like everything else in short supply'.61 Along with factors already discussed, such as censorship restrictions, paper rationing in Britain (imposed in 1942 and not lifted until 1949) contributed to a substantial reduction in literature imported from New Zealand's traditional and largest supplier. Similar cultural repercussions of the war were felt in Australia. Publication of Australian titles trebled between 1939 and 1946, and wartime censorship along with the practical obstacles to the circulation of literature have been seen as partly responsible for this dramatic upsurge in local publishing in the war years. This was also linked, as it was in New Zealand, to a developing national cultural consciousness which was heightened by the war.62

52 P. Martin-Smith, 'Dominion Writers. Chances Offered', Union Record, 1 Aug. 1944 (v.5, n.2), p.3; Sutch, 'Publishing is Our Job', Rostrum, Aug. 1942, p.38

53 J. Harris, 'Book Publishing in New Zealand', New Zealand Libraries, Oct. 1942 (v.6, n.3), p.43

54 Making New Zealand. Pictorial Surveys of a Century, v.1, introduction, quoted in A. J. Booker, 'The Centennial Surveys of New Zealand, 1939-41'. BA (Hons) research exercise, Massey University, 1983, p.12

55 Booker, ibid., p.15

56 Ibid, p.37

57 Ibid., pp.37-49

58 D. B. Paul, 'Publishing and Bookselling', in A.H. McLintock (ed.), An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand. Wellington: Government Printer, 1966, v.2, pp.884-6; A. H. Reed, The House of Reed. Fifty Years of Publishing. Wellington: A.H. and A. W. Reed, 1957; P. Lawlor, The Caxton Press. Some Impressions and a Bibliography. Wellington: Belthane Book Bureau, 1951

59 J. C. Beaglehole, 'From Bookshop Assistant to O. M. Eminent ex-Bookseller talks to N.Z. Jubilee Conference', Bookseller, 3418, 26 June 1971, p.2596

60 Book, 2, May 1941, title page

61 Gordon, 'In Memoriam "NZNW"

62 L. Strahan, Just City and the Mirrors. Meanjin Quarterly and the Intellectual Front, 1945-1965. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1984, p.41