Subscriber Only

A Bite of the Apple: infectious enthusiasm of Virago publisher

Review: Lennie Goodings loops in narratives of authors and movements, building up rich and textured historical fabric

A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago
Author: Lennie Goodings
ISBN-13: 978-0198828754
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £16.99

When Lennie Goodings arrived in London from Canada in 1977, she had a temporary working visa for visiting “the mother country”. After a short while, she landed a part-time position at Virago, a recently-established feminist press running off a low-budget and a lot of dedication. Eventually, Goodings would become the Publisher at Virago, one of the most influential and renowned presses of the 20th century. A Bite of the Apple tells the history of over 40 years of the publishing house, through its books, its characters, its finances, and its drama. It is part memoir, part history, and part an exploration of feminism, publishing, and the place of literature in affecting social progress.

The founder, Carmen Callil, is a colourful presence: determined, strong-willed, occasionally difficult, but always highly-effective. Goodings, at the start of the book, recalls asking Callil: “Why did you start Virago?” She looks up and, without missing a beat, replies, “To change the world, darling. That’s why.” Nearly 4,000 books and a list of 1,000 authors later, it is undeniable that Callil and the ‘Viragos’ achieved their mission. In fact, looking back over the list of writers discussed here, it is unthinkable to imagine the literary landscape of the West without them: contemporary writers such as Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Angela Carter; classics by writers such as Kate O’Brien, Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, and Zora Neale Hurston. That these names and their works are thankfully so fundamental to our canon is a testament not only to how effective Virago are, but also to how necessary their intervention was.

Virago began in 1973 and was part of that decade’s feminist movement. In fact, what Goodings is so good at drawing out in this book is the interrelations between various social and political movements and their correlatives in publishing and literature. Not only does she recover Virago’s story, but she loops in the narratives of various authors and movements, building up a rich and textured historical fabric.

There were fierce arguments and differences among feminists about how we should change the world and what it should be changed to, but what is unarguably true is that stories, histories, memoirs, rants, poems, articles, essays, explorations were like fireworks, rockets lighting up possibilities, blowing up old, entrenched ideas; words were going to tear down and rebuild the world. Words were incendiary and liberating. Words were heralding a new dawn.

Goodings discusses how literary works can provoke discussion and progress with admirable ease and concision. Virago, however, unlike feminist lobbying groups or charity, was established as a business, and its ability to turn a profit was both a practical necessity and a source of pride. From the very beginning, as Goodings writes, Virago “wanted to prove that the business of publishing books by women is a profitable enterprise and that the very existence of Virago shows the world that a feminist business run by women would work.” Compromise, and the mutual existence of both idealism and commerce, is a running theme here - financial issues quickly become ideological, and vice versa. Of course, that means drama, but it also means that there is never a dull moment.

Political criticism, for a start, was never far off. Not only were Virago criticised from within the feminist movement (though Goodings is sure to note that in general the support outweighed this), but also from the usual suspects with talk about “political correctness” and discrimination. In one instance, Virago received a submission (via an agent) by an Asian British author, Rahila Khan. Never meeting the writer, due to her family situation, they published her work, only to later find out that the author was in fact an Anglican vicar called Toby Forward, who clearly had a point to prove. Enraged, and in typically cool fashion, the publishers returned to the office, sent out a press release, asked all bookshops to return the books, and pulped the entirety of his stock. A few years later, Forward wrote another book which featured two nasty characters: one named Lennie, the other Miss Goodings.

Bringing us right through to the work of Lola Olufemi, Joanna Bourke and the impact of #MeToo, A Bite of the Apple is an engagingly-written, thoughtful, and fast-paced book that captures the infectious enthusiasm of Virago. Sometimes eccentric, dedicated, with rare holidays and working lunches, this is an inspiring, entertaining and insightful read, full of the energy and fervour of hard-won wisdom.

Seán Hewitt

Seán Hewitt, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a teacher, poet and critic