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“To encourage mass participation in and responsibility for the publication of progressive Australian literature” was one of the masthead aims of the Australasian Book Society, and perhaps a unique venture in Australian publishing history. The ABS was a mid-twentieth-century, book-club style, cooperative publisher with a subscription model that promised four books a year to members and distribution through unions, industry associations, education organisations and the communities of the organised left in Australia, including the communist party. It sought to find readers who did not read literature and to develop writers who did not yet write it.
Producing a long list of notable books by Australian, New Zealand and other regional authors through the polarised years of the cultural Cold War, the ABS is a key antipodean example of books used as “weapons in the war of ideas” (Hench 2011), while its impact as a conduit for Eastern Bloc publishers is also telling. Much yet remains to be established, however, about both its model of production and the readership it mobilised. Further, the degree to which the aim of “mass participation and responsibility” was successful in creating a literary working-class readership, constituted as such, is illuminating not just for histories of Australian reading but for global understandings of demotic readerships, especially in so far as they were defined within the ideological frames of the Cold War.
Nicole Moore is Professor in English and Media Studies at UNSW Canberra and Associate Dean in charge of the Faculty’s Special Collections. This paper is developed from a collaborative project with Dr Christina Spittel on the ABS and is forthcoming as a developed chapter in the Bloomsbury Handbook to Cold War Literary Cultures, edited by Greg Barnhisel. Its research has been supported by the Cold War Lives and Literatures research group, co-convened between the ANU and UNSW, with A/Prof Ruth Barraclough.