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Salient. An organ of student opinion at Victoria College Wellington, N.Z. Vol. 2, No. 5 April 19, 1939

The Cultural Situation

page 3

The Cultural Situation

Recently there was formed in Wellington a Co-operative Book Society. The Society has been registered under the industrial and Provident Societies Act, l908. Here is the policy that was adopted by the Society at the first general meeting:—

All those interested, having read the following article delivered at the annual meeting by Mr. W. J. Scott, should call at the "Salient" Room, where Membership forms and further information are available.

"The policy of the Wellington Co-operative Book Society shall be to provide readers with books, pamphlets, and periodicals that try with honesty, skill and thoroughness to make the life of men and society intelligible to them. Recognizing the difficulty of training and preserving a sound judgment of literature and art in a world in which so much of it has been debased for profit, the members of the Society look to their bookshop to help them, and the public generally, to this end; they regard it as a means of developing the critical intelligence that the understanding and treatment of human conditions to-day so urgently need."

The move to form Co-operative Bookshops is an indication of the deep dissatisfaction felt by many or us with the inadequate supply of good books in the bookshops, the private lending libraries, or book clubs, and the easily accessible Public Libraries. If we rely on them, we are deprived, firstly, of reliable information about books—this is to be found only in periodicals with high standards of criticism and bookshops as a rule stock scarcely any of these—and second, of very many of the best books of imaginative literature, art, and criticism, politics, social sciences, etc. And, for a variety of reasons, the position is getting worse, not better, it is only by such co-operation, among those who want to read well, as the establishment and support of this bookshop that the rot can be stopped.


It is important to realise that what has happened with the ordinary commercial bookshop has happened also with every agency that sells entertainment, the means of occupying leisure time to the people. It started when the relatively stable social and cultural traditions of Western Europe began to disintegrate before the new conditions created by mass production in the search for profits and power began to exploit the leisure lives of people on a vast scale. This is the new and alarming difference between to-day and a not very distant yesterday—that to-day we have for the first time in history great industries, with a capital running into hundreds of millions of pounds, existing solely to sell the art to the largest possible number of people, and in so doing, to make the largest possible profits. The result is that the true educational and cultural influences in our Society now are not the schools, where the standards of Shakespeare and Swift are still, though rather shakily, upheld, or the theatre, or the church but those means of popular entertainment that modern inventions and industrial organisation have made it possible to provide for the multitudes our State education has taught to read—the romantic novel, the romantic fiction magazine, the film which is in essentials the romantic novel transferred to the screen, the daily and weekly newspapers with a circulation of millions.

On all Sides.

To see how bad the position is in Wellington in the literary field, we have only to look around us. In the city and suburbs there are at least 150 shops, possibly 200, selling popular magazines (the minimum figure is vouched for from a reliable source the writer cannot divulge, but it probably does not include all shops). One such shop (of the popular news stand type) for which subscription figures were obtained, sold in one month two copies of a group of four-teen serious and responsible periodicals like "The New Statesman." and "The Spectator," 150 of a group of ten magazines of the more "entertaining type" like "Punch," "John o' London's," "Man." "Strand." etc., and at least 700 of the True Story Western Story group. There were probably many more of the quality of this last group sold, because the screen magazines were unfortunately omitted from the list submitted to the proprietors.

Now, it is doubtful If (In the wholes of Wellington) more than half-a-dozen shops out of the total of 150-200 have a sale worth mentioning of periodicals with any purpose besides that of making profit for their owners. To arrive, therefore, at a fairly accurate idea of the extent to which the public buy and read these quite irresponsible magazines we must multiply the sales of the shop for which I have given figures by something like 20. In a sensational article published about a year ago. "Truth" declared that 3,000,000 of those "filthy" magazines were imported annually into this country. How these figures were arrived at, I don't know, but, if they are accurate, the position is rather deplorable.

The characteristic brand of phantasy in these magazines may be described as masturbatory.


In addition to the 150-200 shops selling popular magazines there must be upwards of 50 profit-seeking lending libraries, counting branches. Perhaps there are more. Some reader may be interested enough to count them to find out more definitely. These libraries stock mainly contemporary fiction. It is not the best fiction nor is it the, worst. It is mediocre fiction, based on one or both of two staple elements, sex and violence, romance and detection. To get profits the policy of the libraries is to buy cheaply, to limit the range to books that change hands quickly, and to keep such information about good books as is given in the better periodicals away from their subscribers. The effect is to decrease the sales of the good books, lower the level at which the majority of people read, and make them less fit to read and understand more serious books dealing realistically or imaginatively with the lives of men.


Another unfortunate aspect of the literary situation is the low standard of criticism. We are all, of course, affected by the general conditions that exist, and we read less carefully, thoroughly, and intelligently than we should. What we need to keep us up to the mark are good periodicals with a consistently high standard of criticism. These are, unfortunately, few. The serious critical journals have had a thin time during the last quarter century. Some like "Sound and Horn," the "Calendar," "Symposium," have appeared and vanished after brief but honorable careers: others have been forced to combine in self-defense. "The New Statesman and Nation" was once four papers (if that is a fair way to put it), the "New Statesman," the "Nation," the "Athenaeum," the "Week End Review." At present it has the largest circulation among the serious general periodicals, about 27,000. The "London Mercury" and the "Bookman" were combined a few years ago; the circulation is now something under 10,000. The "Spectator" keeps its circulation round the 20,000 mark by devices such as a special half-price rate for schools. Middleton Murry's "Adelphi" is now practically out of action us a literary critic, having become a pacifist organ with a small circulation. "Purpose," a quarterly of uneven quality but sometimes good, is on its last legs.

But "The Times" literary supplement is the journal whose recent history tells us most about the present position of culture. According to Michael Roberts its circulation is at present under 10,000 "in spite of its desperate efforts to gain new admirers by indulging in the indecorous gaiety of mutton dressed as lamb.'" It now publishes reviews of thrillers and defends them editorially; and the general tone of its criticism is flabby and uncertain. It still remains the only paper in which reasonably full information about a wide range of books being published can be obtained, but it's tragic surrender to the middlebrows has robbed it of much of its authority as a critical journal. One good service our Bookshop can do is to introduce the good periodical to more people and so help it to keep going.

We look then to the Bookshop to provide us and the public generally first, with those books, pamphlets, and periodicals that give us the information about what is going on in the world, now inadequately given or kept from us by the Press; secondly, with the best fiction, poetry, and drama; thirdly, with the important scientific, philosophic, and religious literature of the day; and, finally, with the books of criticism and critical journals maintaining standards that deserve respect. We realise that we are faced with a political and cultural problem, at bottom the same problem, and desperately urgent.

W. J. Scott.