Mark Bostridge

The inside story of working for Carmen Callil

Lennie Goodings recalls the exhilarating early years of Virago — the revolutionary feminist imprint with the scariest MD in publishing

The inside story of working for Carmen Callil
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A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago

Lennie Goodings

OUP, pp. 302, £16.99

Forty-seven years ago, Virago paperbacks, with their stylish green spines and hint-of-the-transgressive colophons of a red apple with a bite out of it, revolutionised British publishing in a way that had not been seen since Allen Lane’s Penguins in the 1930s.

It’s no exaggeration to say that the firm permanently altered a nation’s reading habits. Founded in 1973, three years after the Equal Pay Act and with the Sex Discrimination Act just two years away, Virago had a clear feminist objective. It wanted to produce books that gave a voice to the 52 per cent of the population under-represented in a world of mainstream publishing still largely run through the old boys’ network. Its mission was to help women understand their history, to establish a female literary canon and to make visible the experience of modern women in new, empowering portrayals in both fiction and non-fiction.

With regard to the last of these, the novelist Angela Carter caught the raucous exhilaration of the moment when she wrote that she hoped that no daughter of hers would ever be in the position to write — ‘for all its exquisite prose’— By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, and might attempt something more along the lines of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Tore Off His Balls.

Lennie Goodings was at Virago almost from the beginning, ‘a small town kid from Canada’ employed by the Australian Carmen Callil, one of the founders, to work in publicity, a vital area for the new imprint. She remains at the company today, having survived all the buy-outs, fall-outs, peaks and troughs and feminist and post-feminist eras that define Virago’s history.

Her book is a hybrid concoction, part memoir, part practical guide to publishing, editing and reading — did you know that in most publishing houses only 20 per cent of titles make a profit? The other 80 per cent lose money or barely break even — with

a scattering of affectionate pen-portraits of some of the authors she has worked with. These include Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood and, most memorably, Grace Paley — ‘little, round, talkative, generous Grace’.

What runs through A Bite of the Apple, unifying it and contributing to its charm, is the passion for books you’d expect, but also an impressive idealism, obvious but needing to be reiterated, about the ways in which the published word can change society and help readers to become the people they want to be.

Back at the start, Goodings was one of the five women who later formed Virago’s directorate, working in an office in Wardour Street above a pinball arcade and a gentlemen’s hairdressers. She describes the surroundings as seedy, the atmosphere at once exciting and exhausting, as well as often downright unpleasant.

Of course the elephant in the room in all this — or perhaps one should say the stroppy koala, given her penchant for wearing jumpers with a koala bear motif — was the managing director, Carmen Callil, velvety charm one moment and spitfire temper the next, who ran Virago like a strict girls’ school. Actually, Goodings sounds just like a schoolgirl suffering from a crush on her favourite teacher when she quotes from a letter she wrote home to her parents in Ontario. Carmen was ‘alternatively wonderful, inspiring, funny AND horrid, bullying and bitchy’. (I myself recall once going to see Callil after she’d moved to Chatto, and being told by the receptionist that I’d have to wait as Carmen was on the phone to the police trying to get them to remove her secretary.)

All these years later, the question that constantly needles Goodings as chair of Virago in its corporate home at Hachette, is whether the imprint is still necessary. Hasn’t it achieved what it set out to do? Hasn’t it changed the kind of books we read and influenced other publishers in the books they publish?

You’d expect her to answer that question with a resounding reaffirmation of the continuing need for a women-only list, and sure enough she does. And her arguments are worth listening to. The ‘perception, significance and reception’ of novels by women, she feels, still carry the underlying assumption from the outset that these books are inferior because they are by women. Does the fact that the CEOs of British publishing companies are nearly all men, when most of the staff are women, have anything to do with this? Or that women’s books are under-reviewed in the press, and that men still make up the larger proportion of reviewers? (Look at the embarrassingly poor record of the London Review of Books in this respect.)

Incidentally, you may be wondering what a man is doing reviewing this book. I can only claim in my defence that I’m one of a handful of male authors on the Virago list (by virtue of having written about an iconic woman). Moreover, to quote the author in support of the reviewer — now there’s a novelty — feminism is central to all, not just women.