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

The Aftermath

The Aftermath

In the aftermath, criticism and recrimination were directed particularly at Harold Fenton, who had resigned in conflict with the committee in February 1945. Fenton was criticised for general bad management and for over-ordering, particularly in the area of children's books on which the society made substantial losses. It must be noted, however, that none of those involved in the PPS had prior experience in publishing. In a report to his own society Progressive Books' chairman W. E. Ireland drew attention to, amongst other factors, organisational weaknesses, inadequate distribution and marketing methods and lack of business experience. The 'beautifully democratic co-operative' structure of the society also came in for criticism from one member as overly cumbersome and a drain on resources; judging by the manager's comment in his 1944 report that 'during one four-weekly period, twenty-three meetings were held', this charge may have had some justification.74 In assessing the experience of progressive publishing, however, the economics of publishing and nature of the market are of more significance. As the society itself recognised, the real task, and the real problem, was 'to link the idealism with which the organisation was founded to a realistic recognition of the difficulties, limitations, and possibilities of publishing in New Zealand.'75

page 165

J. W. Winchester, the Wellington bookshop representative at the final conference, offered the particularly trenchant criticism that the PPS had

lost our money, published the wrong books, refused to publish the right books, published the dearest books in New Zealand, and distributed them by the worst system ever devised for any concern in the country.76

His view that the PPS published the most expensive books in New Zealand is not entirely fair, although criticism on this point was also recorded in the manager's report of 1944. Their prices compare not unfavourably with those of the Caxton Press. Caxton's Recent Poems (1941) was priced at 5/- while Curnow's Sailing or Drowningby the PPS (1943) cost 6/6. A Present for Hitler and other versesby Whim Wham (1940) published by Caxton at 3/- compares with Whim Wham, 1943 by the PPS at 3/6. A small number of PPS publications were cheap reprints of Caxton editions, such as Frank Sargeson's A Man and His Wife (4/-; first, Caxton edition 6/-) and Frederick Sinclaire's Lend Me YourEars (5/-; Caxton edition 7/6). By contrast, hardback novels published in Britain were priced upwards of 10/- in New Zealand in 1944, and the PPS's poetry volumes were on a par with, for example, Forty Poems by John Lehmann at 6/6 or Some Poems by W. H. Auden at 4/6.77 They were, though, more expensive than Penguins, which cost 1/6 at the co-op bookshops in 1944. These prices are also placed in some perspective by observations of the New Zealand publishing market made by M.H. Holcroft in The Waiting Hills (1943). The centennial Pictorial Surveys priced at 5/- each were 'well within the reach of the average buyer, although still too expensive for the younger readers'; by contrast, the average price for New Zealand classics—works by Robert McNab, Guthrie Smith or J. B. Condliffe, for example—ranged from 10/- to 50/-. Jerningham Wakefield's Adventure in New Zealand could be bought for 15/-; W. P. Reeves' The Long White Cloud for 16/6; Guthrie Smith's Tutira for 50/-. These were books which, in Holcroft's opinion, 'should be obtainable in all bookshops at prices so low that every wage earner could afford to keep them on his own shelves.'78 Prices of 5/-or 6/- for small poetry collections thus seem quite reasonable. At the same time, a resolution was passed by the PPS's 1943 conference that 'we emphasise the excess of cheap pamphlets and therefore urge the incoming Committee to do their utmost to produce popular full size books and booklets of a progressive or socially significant character.'79 In view of the concern, voiced on several occasions, that the society should outgrow its reputation as a glorified 'pamphleteer' rather than a fully-fledged publisher, the 1945 programme included a greater proportion of full sized, cloth bound books as opposed to the paper bound books and pamphlets which had so far made up the bulk of its publications. These were more expensive to produce (£400-700 per title80 ), and also led to higher prices and, concomitantly, a smaller market. A substantial book like page 166 Ernest Beaglehole's Islands of Danger which ran to 212 pages and was illustrated cost 15/6.

Fenton came in for particular criticism for over-ordering children's books, while the society made considerable losses on its children's publishing, although a few titles were strong sellers. Its failures in this area, though, must be considered in the context of Whitcombe and Tombs' and Reed's domination of the school textbook market, and in the light of the observation later made by A. H. Reed, that general children's literature 'could not be produced [in New Zealand] at a price competitive with such books published overseas.'81

As the society's contingency plans—such as reprinting popular novels— suggest, the question of 'right' books and 'wrong' books could be posed in political or market terms with contrary implications. The critic who objected to the proportion of 'highbrow' material in the PPS's 1945 publishing programme urged a 'drastic' change in policy which would limit publication to 'winners', making profit 'the chief concern for a considerable time'.82 This argument was echoed in a resolution of the Modern Books committee in October 1944, and again by Ian Mackay in a proposal to 'devote a portion of our resources and import licence to providing retail shops with some easy-selling lines,—popular books, light reading, or, if you must have it, "tripe"', the '"sugar-coated pill" treatment', as he put it—an expedient compromise, in other words, with the society's commitment to both literary and political standards.83 He correctly identified the limited potential for purely left-wing publishing and bookselling, as the coop bookshops also discovered:

Don't let's kid ourselves that the retail trade is queueing up to handle all our present publications. Many retailers consider that we are merely peddling political pamphlets with only a limited appeal and as a result are not keen on giving us orders.84

One committee member blamed the society's collapse on 'an undiluted succession of propaganda books which could not pay their way.'85 A decision to publish nothing but 'winners' not only would have constituted a drastic change in policy but underlines the ambiguity of the term 'popular' in this context. Note, for example, the different connotations of the word in the following resolution passed by the 1943 PPS conference: that

imports should be chiefly concerned with popular progressive material for the encouragement of retail sales of an improved character, (a) We also think a conservative policy on imports is advisable, but recognise that to secure widest contacts for distribution of better class literature, we must have a fair proportion of more popular matter of cheap quality.86

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The chairman's statement quoted above on the PPS's reputation amongst booksellers was made in reference to 'propagandist' pamphlet literature, such as Sid Scott's Socialist Theory of the State and the Soviet Union and Historical Background of the World Labour Movement, and imports such as Britain Marches with Russia. But it is likely that the market was as resistant to 'proletarian' or socialist realist literature. No doubt to the frustration and embarrassment of its critics, New Zealand New Writing was the most successful of the society's publications financially: 'The success, from the sales point of view, of "New Writing"', observed the manager, 'has made possible the publication of other works which have not paid their way.'87 The following sales figures quoted to the management committee (and undated) would have given them no more cause for joy. Tales for Pippa, a children's book, had sold 1570 and Verse by New Zealand Children, which had been singled out for criticism, had sold 1635, compared with 250 of Allen Curnow's Sailing or Drowning and 370 of Anton Vogt's Poems for a War. Curnow did slightly better with Whim Wham, 1943 which had sold 950. Clearly there was a limited market for serious literary material. It is unlikely therefore that a volume of political poetry such as The Vltava Still Sings or Frederick Ost's Three Essays on Czech Poets would have found a more extensive market than these. In the light of these comments, and of the left-wing political and populist ideals which motivated some members of the Progressive Publishing Society, the following lines from a poem in The Vltava Still Sings read with some irony:

I follow the future
which is centred
in the industrial quarters
in the mining districts
in the suburbs
through which are marching
future readers of poems.88

Co-op Books, November 1943

Co-op Books, November 1943

page 168

It was the Czechoslovak poetry which Eileen Coyne of Progressive Books cited as an example of the serious, dull, academic-looking books produced by the Progressive Publishing Society which were the most difficult to sell. The PPS shared with the Caxton Press and Bob Lowry an interest in typography, although not of such a flamboyant style, which was more appropriate for Milton's Areopagitica or Curnow's Three Poems than for Wool Marketing or Slums of Auckland. J. C. Beaglehole, chairman of the society's typographical committee, described the PPS style as 'straightforward and workmanlike and decent.'89 The design of the Tiki' books was tasteful and restrained (although the tastefulness of the Tiki logo might seem questionable now). They displayed neither the elaborate fine printing of some of the Caxton publications, nor the pictorial covers which adorned popular American paperbacks. Certainly Beaglehole brought to the Progressive Publishing Society a stronger interest in design than in 'popular' publishing in the latter sense.

Critics of the society's cultural publications on the grounds of their lack of political content would have been even less encouraged by the fact that, not only did such material apparently not sell well, but (unsurprisingly) the society did not receive an abundance of literary manuscripts of a political nature—no New Zealand Cwmardys or Waiting for Leftys. As the manager commented on the New Zealand New Writing controversy: 'While many of our members feel that a greater proportion of the articles should have some social content, it must be remembered that this type of MSS. is rarely received.'90 Committee member Ron Meek was evidently not entirely happy with Ian Gordon's editorship of the series, suggesting that the position be rotated annually on the selection of the committee, but he too acknowledged that 'whether or not the issues to date satisfy indefinable yearnings for "more social content", Professor Gordon has been publishing the best of the material he received.'91 Moreover, the small amount of literary material of a left-wing nature that the society did publish was often not New Zealand in origin: Czechoslovak poetry, for example, and Greville Texidor's stories in New Zealand New Writing, which were two of the more perceptive and critical contributions to the series, and written by an author who had been in the country for only a few years. (Nor, for that matter, would such critics have been gratified by the reaction of one New Writing contributor—the freezing worker and union member—who objected to a 'political' reading of his work. His story, 'The Woods No More', which describes the monotonous, purely physical work of tree-felling and the need of the worker for some intellectual stimulation, was not intended to be a commentary on 'a collective problem, of bringing culture to outback workers', he advised, but rather an attempt 'to picture the revolt of an individual from the fascination of a life that, for him, was only a half-life.'92 )

In so far as it developed out of a conjunction of left-wing and nationalist page 169 motives, the Progressive Publishing Society represented not so much an integration of these interests as an absorption of the left-wing impulse by a broader cultural development—the growing awareness of and desire to 'establish' a distinctively New Zealand culture. The dynamic was more strongly 'nationalist' than 'left' in terms both of the demand from both readers and writers to which the society catered, and of the interests of those involved. Thus it found that its largest market was for the generally pallid and non-political New Zealand New Writing and Verse by New Zealand Children and for the more affordable 9d pamphlets of topical interest. It received manuscripts in abundance simply because there was so little New Zealand publishing at the time, and probably most of them were neither socialist in content nor 'popular' in intent.

In accounting for the failure of the Progressive Publishing Society one must also consider that, unlike other New Zealand publishers in this period, the PPS had no significant financial base independent of publishing. The Caxton Press, by contrast, had the financial support of its printing business. Whitcombe and Tombs was also based on printing, as well as bookselling, and on the large and steady market of school textbooks. Reed's retained its initial basis in Sunday School literature. The centennial publications were funded by the government. Paul's Book Arcade (later Blackwood and Janet Paul Ltd) was founded upon a long-established family bookselling business. The 1940s also saw the beginning of university publishing in New Zealand. The short life of the New Zealand University Press, which was founded in 1946 and 'unfortunately and unnecessarily slain'93 in 1962, provides an instructive illustration of this argument. Its establishment was the result of 30 years of intermittent effort by a few enlightened academics to persuade a reluctant university Senate of the need for a university publishing operation, which would have as one of its primary objects the publication of books which would not be viable for commercial publishers: scholarly works, academic theses, bibliographies, textbooks and periodicals. The New Zealand University Press was administered by a board chaired by J. C. Beaglehole and produced 17 publications over the next 11 years, only two of which—both textbooks—were financially successful without receiving any other monetary support. Its disestablishment was due in large part to the Senate's refusal to accept the need for ongoing financial and institutional support; left to survive on its own resources, the New Zealand University Press came to an unfortunate but inevitable end.94 The idea of the university providing institutional support for the publication of New Zealand literature did not die. In the 1990s, four of the universities support small publishing companies. But the main source of financial security for New Zealand publishing has now become international publishing capital.

The cooperative bookshops, by contrast, hardly represented a secure financial base. The Progressive Publishing Society was thus left more exposed than its page 170 contemporaries to the size and vicissitudes of the market. The society clearly-responded to a need on the part of writers, both new and established, for publishing opportunities, and to a perceived cultural need, the need for a cultural infrastructure to support a growing independent New Zealand literature. But the literary market was small, and limited particularly in the areas of 'serious' literature and political material in which the Progressive Publishing Society saw its role. These difficulties were further exacerbated by the society's internal economic constraints as a socialist cultural organisation.

When the affairs of the society were wound up its import licence and remaining stock were distributed amongst the four cooperative book societies. This became a matter of some debate when the Wellington society objected to the liquidator's decision to include Dunedin Modern Books in the setdement, even though the Dunedin society had never legally joined the partnership and had therefore sustained no financial loss from its demise. The WCBS apologised for its 'dog in the manger' attitude, but explained that it was forced to take this position because of the severe difficulties it was facing in extricating itself financially from the publishing society's collapse. (Eventually agreement was reached over Dunedin receiving a portion of the publishing society's import licence.) The Wellington society had lost £1500 in the PPS. Other factors, such as tenancy problems, aggravated its difficulties at this time and in addition to selling its library it was forced to take out a bank overdraft and seek an indemnity from its shareholders to enable it to clear its PPS debt by the end of 1946. Progressive Books lost £1400 in the venture. It paid off the bulk of its debt from its share capital account, by asking each member holding multiple shares to forfeit all but one share to cover the loss. For the book societies the Progressive Publishing Society had indeed been a costly experiment.

Publications in press when the society folded were taken over by Blackwood Paul. One lasting influence of the Progressive Publishing Society was thus in providing the basis for one of New Zealand's longest surviving independent publishers. In addition to the books that appeared under its own imprint the PPS had also initiated at least two of the most significant New Zealand literary publications of the 1940s: Sargeson's Speaking for Ourselves anthology and Curnow's seminal A Book of New Zealand Verse.

While Blackwood Paul in a sense took up where the PPS left off, others were not so inspired by the experience. The Christchurch Co-operative Book Society did venture back into publishing on an occasional basis in the second half of the 1940s, with The Challenge to New Zealand Labour by Dudley Seers, published, after cautious consideration, in 1946, and Fools' Carnival, cartoons by Kennaway Henderson, in 1949. The Wellington society did not regain its interest in publishing until the 1950s, and then only cautiously, considering manuscripts as page 171 they presented themselves rather than actively seeking them out. A conference of the Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch societies held in 1954 considered the subject of joint publishing again, but significandy, it was the question of individual liability which was of primary concern. (The proposal, which did not get off the ground, was for a limited liability company acting as a nominal publisher for the co-op book societies who would retain responsibility for their own publications.) When Arthur Jackson-Thomas canvassed his idea for a revived New Zealand Left Book Club in 1948, the WCBS warned of the difficulties of such a scheme 'unless run in conjunction with publishers or unless we (God forbid) went back into the publishing business.'95

page 172

74 'Faith in Co-operative Publishing. Wellington Meeting', CB,June 1945 (v.2, n.6), p. [3]; manager's report to 1944 conference, p.6

75 'Keynote to Conference', CB, Dec. 1944 (v.1, n.14),p.[1]

76 'Faith in Co-operative Publishing', p. [3]

77 Associated Booksellers of New Zealand. Minutes, 26 Jan. 1944. Associated Booksellers of New Zealand. Minute book, 1931-8. Ms y 1075. Alexander Turnbull Library; booklists of co-op bookshops, printed in CB

78 M.H. Holcroft, The Discovered Isles. A Trilogy. Christchurch: Caxton Press, 1950, pp.183, 181

79 'National Conference of Progressive Publishing Society'

80 Mackay to secretary, WCBS, 9 Dec. 1944; CB, Dec. 1944 (v.1, n.14), p.[3]

81 Reed, The House ofReed, p.32

82 Unsigned letter to R. S. Parker, 6 Mar. 1945

83 Mackay, 'A Challenging Proposal'

84 Ibid.

85 'Faith in Co-operative Publishing', p. [3]

86 'National Conference of Progressive Publishing Society'

87 Manager's report to 1944 conference, p.2

88 J. Noha, Tomorrow', in Ost and Meek, The Vltava Still Sings, pp.45-6

89 Beaglehole, 'The Work of the Typographical Committee', CB, Nov. 1944 (v.1, n.13), p.[2]

90 Manager's report to 1944 conference, p.2

91 'Conference Notes', CB, Jan. 1945 (v.2, n.1), pp.[2-3]

92 R. Gilberd, correspondence, CB, Nov. 1944 (v.1, n.13), p.[3]

93 Beaglehole, 'From Bookshop Assistant to O.M.', p.2596

94 J. E. Traue, 'The University of New Zealand Press', New Zealand Libraries, Jan.-Feb. 1963 (v.26, n.1), pp.1-18

95 Secretary, WCBS to A. Jackson-Thomas, 14 Jan. 1949. WCBS Papers: 25