Editorial – Issue 11

Towards a new era, Colin James

The Rank group now controls half of the bookselling trade, with Whitcoulls, Bennetts, London, Philip King and a part share in University Bookshops. More important, according to informal trade estimates, it controls 60% or more of sales of New Zealand-produced books. The Commerce Commission, bound to look at industries in commercial terms only, has waved the deal through.

Rank’s control of Whitcoulls has instituted a margin-raising regime which has squeezed producers. An extension of that to the other chains it now owns would make the economics of book publishing more precarious. Fewer books would be published.

By the market-neutral rules of the Commerce Act, that would not matter. Foreign-produced books would fill the gap. That is the game under Rogernomics and why should book publishers be any different from toymakers, the makers of garden forks or refrigerator manufacturers? All are, in economic textbooks, commodities of one sort of another and the market will decide what gets made, what gets traded and what gets bought.

In one sense there is nothing exceptionable about that. There is a lot of scope yet for book-makers to become more innovative about production and selling, which, if they do, will be good for authors (sales maintained) and readers (prices held). And in due course, if major chains are run so inefficiently or greedily as to require higher margins, new, efficient and innovative, entrants into book reselling might well compete margins back down again.

But there is in this affair what economists call an ‘externality’, that is, a factor not subject to the narrow mathematics of markets. And it is an important one for the country’s wellbeing. Of the markers of the past decade-and-a-half of rapid social change has been the emergence of a vigorous national self-expression ‑ in films, plays, arts and crafts; in fiction, poetry, social, political and economic commentary and a re-examination of our history. Two decades ago there would not have been enough to fill this journal.

If fewer New Zealand books are published, that self-expression will be diminished. At this pivotal stage in the redefinition of New Zealand/Aotearoa as an independent society that would be unfortunate.

What is done is done. There will be no special regulation to undo the commission’s inability or unwillingness to take the wider national interest into account. With some notable exceptions, politicians are no more assiduous book readers than regulators.

But as we ease towards MMP the general question of re-regulation will become more insistent, starting with electricity and airports. That is one change looming.

More generally, for those seeking guidance to life under MMP, the institute of Policy Studies’ Changing Politics? The Electoral Referendum 1993 is a useful starting point, with essays on political culture and trust (Richard Mulgan), the formation and re-formation of parties (Barry Gustafson) and the impact on the workings of Parliament (Paul Harris and Elizabeth McLeay) and on the state service (Paul Carpinter), with a possible electoral map by Alan McRobie. Alan Bollard, director of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research, has separately had a stab at the economic impact (principally a looser Budget) in The Economic Consequences of Electoral Reform.

It’s all necessarily rather academic and, in Mulgan’s case, frustratingly timid. The definitive studies have yet to come and for a time will be limited to progress reports in seminars, newspapers and other journals. Perhaps for the moment we would do better to concentrate instead on the delicious paradoxes identified by Bill Oliver in his review of Michael Bassett’s Ward.

To talk of a measure of re-regulation is not to talk of a return to Muldoonism or the hermetic society of the 1950s. That society, or rather its teenage segment, is graphically and depressingly revisited in Redmer Yska’s All Shook Up. The Flash Bodgie and the Rise of the New Zealand Teenager in the Fifties (Penguin, $34.95). Yska paints a picture of repression in the face of youthful exuberance and international cultural invasion. Not only does his portrait bring back to those of us who lived through them memories of just how dismal life could be in the good old days; if my teenage daughter and her friends are a guide, it dismays the freer, better-educated, more sophisticated, more independent current crop.

Yska’s account deserves to be read as a reminder of what we should not slip back into, as the mantle of small c moral conservatism slips back on to the shoulders of the National Party. It could be an often cruel society, obsessed as it was with the avoidance of insecurity; those in power had had enough of shocks, from the 1930s depression and the 1940s world war. Not only at home did we seek that: in our foreign policy, too, as Tom Larkin notes in an empathetic review of the Berendsen letters, we wanted security.

But Yska’s account suffers from skimpy contextualisation. The society of the 1950s was much shaped by those events of the previous two decades, by an ideology which gained irresistible strength from the desire for security and by the resultant material security and materialism ‑ which paradoxically generated teenagers’ opportunities for alternative (rebellious) lifestyles.

This was a society which thought it had found the key to eternal prosperity. In 1984 we threw away the key because we thought that not only had it rusted into uselessness but the lock had been changed while we were not looking. In this issue Brian Easton reviews the case by Wolfgang Rosenberg for a revival of the economic policies of the fifties. At the other extreme, Sir Roger Douglas reckons we did not turn the key far enough; and Margaret Clark looks at his argument with a political eye.

This issue was intended by Peppercorn Press as a “political” number which is why I am guest editor. So Denis Welch makes a welcome return to politics in print opposite; Maurice Shadbolt’s latest historical novel (reviewed from an historian’s perspective) raises its share of political questions.

Politics is an apposite focus at this time. It also accounts, because of its turbulence in the past eight weeks, for this issue being later than we had hoped.

For all that, we have been unable to include a number of pre-Christmas releases, among them some books with intensely political themes, including studies of the operation of the welfare state and of the voluntary welfare sector, of women and taxation of women and politics. Next year, starting with our Festival issue for March, we will be operating on a more systematic and, we hope, more frequent basis and thus to be more up-to-date (besides clearing the backlog). We will also aim to deepen and broaden our reviewing, to treat books as repositories of ideas, as the basis for wide-reading essays exploring, themes, developments, tendencies and future directions.

Some of that should be evident in this issue. ‘Political’ issue though this may be, it nevertheless contains thoughtful surveys of Shadbolt’s and Vincent O’Sullivan’s major new novels (the latter by an Australian academic, in the interests of a broader perspective). There is more than a passing glance at some other novelists and insightful analyses of the poetry of Iain Sharp and Anne French, of an eclectic new anthology by Bill Manhire and a swatch of new slim volumes of verse. Biography, one way or another, is also a feature of this issue, including (besides those already mentioned) of James Shelley and Patrick White – Charles Ferrall judges Mark Williams, author of the latter, a ‘major Australasian critic’.


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