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15 July 2020

Inside the feminist publisher that upended the literary world

How a generation of women rewrote the rules of publishing in the 1970s.

By Melissa Benn

Oiginally, this book was going to be called “The Idealistic Publisher”. It is not as good a title as A Bite of the Apple, with its hint of Eve’s hunger for knowledge, but that first version does at least allude more directly to one of the ­central themes of this honest and engaging ­account: how do you keep faith with the demands of an ­ever-changing feminist politics and an equally tumultuous literary market? Plot spoiler: it has always been a tough call.

Virago, founded in 1973, was the brain child of the Australian publisher and ­writer Carmen Callil, soon joined by ­Ursula Owen, and sustained over the years by a small and loyal team. It began in an era of gentleman’s publishing that then seemed unassailable, but largely looks like a bunch of fusty old patriarchs to modern eyes. Born of, and borne along by, the rage and energy of a generation of young educated women, Virago’s early publications brilliantly channelled this hunger for a new politics, a new history, a different kind of fiction. It has published 4,000 titles, 1,000 authors, had ten different offices and seven different forms of ownership. In 1995, it was bought out by Little, Brown – in part as ­protection against the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement, which, in ­ensuring that all retailers sold books at agreed prices, had enabled smaller, independent presses (and bookshops) to survive.

Lennie Goodings is not the most famous or fiery of the Viragos – that honour, surely, goes to Callil – but she is best placed to tell this particular story from start to finish and she does so with a wonderfully light touch and much tact. Beginning as a freelance publicist soon after the launch of the press, Goodings stood down as publishing director in 2017 but remains chair of the imprint.

Part of the tale is framed as the autobiography of a young Canadian ingénue drawn to the shabby chic of Seventies radical publishing: the tiny, cramped offices in Lon-don’s Soho, Friday night cleaning rotas, gruelling author tours, personality clashes in the office. From the beginning, Virago attracted two distinct forms of opposition: the sneers of established male literary critics – Anthony Burgess and Gore Vidal emerge as two particularly lofty offenders – and the distrust of more politically minded feminists who thought Virago was selling out to corporatism, celebrity feminism, or both. One can still feel the serrated edge of ­Goodings’s ­irritation with both groups.

Goodings is justly proud of the Virago Classics imprint (it gets its own chapter) first established by Callil, who was determined not just to recover the works of ­neglected women writers of the past, but to create and consolidate a female literary tradition. Educated by a militantly ­Leavisite English department while at university in ­Australia, ­Callil has said that she longed to “put a bomb under Leavis’s agonisingly narrow selection of ‘great’ novelists”.

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This history has it all: boardroom wrangles, bestsellers, legendary authors. Goodings and her team often had to act as a cross between friend, party companion, ­therapist and events manager. Maya Angelou loved to wear mink and extravagant jewels, and party pretty much everywhere. (In the US, ­Oprah Winfrey threw huge parties for the writer’s 70th, 75th and 80th birthdays.) At the Hay-on-Wye literary festival, Angelou sang with a specially invited Welsh male voice choir. In London, renting Jon Snow’s Kentish Town cottage, Angelou hosted nightly parties with, among others, Salman Rushdie, Christopher Hitchens and Jessica Mitford. Goodings quotes Angelou saying, “When I come, I give my all”, but adds that among the Virago team, “there was lots of crying around Maya”. Sometimes these were tears of joy, sometimes of fatigue and frustration.

Margaret Atwood, Virago’s biggest seller, emerges as a very different figure: a clever, drily witty consummate professional, willing to slog around the UK in the early days but now an enormous global brand. There’s an extraordinary description of a gathering of a chosen group of Atwood’s “people” (her English, Canadian and US editors: these, the pick of hundreds of Atwood’s publishers around the world ) meeting at a Toronto hotel in 2008 to discuss the manuscript of Atwood’s novel MaddAddam.

Each of the six were handed a copy of the finished manuscript wrapped in a different coloured ribbon and “a goodie bag made up of aspirins, throat lozenges, chocolate, bottled water and energy bars”, after which the jet-lagged and nervous Goodings was set to her task of reading the completed manuscript overnight, as if sitting an exam. The next morning, Atwood arrived at the hotel suite, a candle was lit “to acknowledge the auspiciousness of the event” (unfortunately setting off the hotel fire alarm and prompting the arrival of several fire engines) before collective judgement was delivered.

There are plenty of notable British writers lovingly described in these pages, although the difference in self-belief and public impact between them and the North American authors is striking. Angela Carter is a “citizen writer”, always supporting others, who does not get the plaudits she deserves until her early death. Socialist feminist Beatrix Campbell is charmingly self-deprecating when on an author tour. One can feel Goodings’s regret that a lot of home-grown feminists have never quite got the hang of this necessary immodesty lark, particularly in an era in which the ­writer has had to become something of a public personality to survive.

There is lots of fascinating stuff on the complex alchemy of talent, political fashion and marketability that propels certain authors forward at certain times, and the loving effort and attention involved in editing a manuscript. Honest about ways in which the fragmentation of women’s politics in the Eighties and Nineties caused much soul searching – and declining sales – she salutes the recent rebirth of feminist politics that has given the imprint a new lease of life. It is to Virago’s credit that it was intersectional well before most in mainstream publishing, and now actively seeks out black, working-class, trans and non-binary voices.

At the book’s end, Goodings poses a question that she is, obviously, fed up with ­always ­being asked. Are enterprises like Virago, and the hugely successful Women’s Prize for Fiction – which she helped to found – still needed? In a word: yes! (Goodings loves an exclamation mark.) And never more so than in a market in which women read both male and female writers while men, depressingly, largely stick to male authors.

If, as Grace Paley once acutely observed, women of the 19th century “hid in order to be seen”, women writers of the 21st century still appear to need separate cultural spaces in which to flourish if they are ever to be taken as seriously as their male peers. 

Melissa Benn’s books include “What Should We Tell Our Daughters? The Pleasures and Pressures of Growing Up Female” (Hodder)

A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago
Lennie Goodings
Oxford University Press, 320pp, £16.99

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This article appears in the 15 Jul 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Race for the vaccine