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A lifetime of publishing in London

Anna Porter

A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago

Lennie Goodings


304 pages, softcover and ebook

I am a fan of memoirs about publishing. For close to forty years, I have enjoyed reading them, and I still find them fascinating. The first two I read were Sir Stanley Unwin’s The Truth about Publishing and, later, The Truth about a Publisher. Sir Stanley was famous for publishing Bertrand Russell and J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but my reason for reading him was that I had just lied my way into a very junior job at a British company that didn’t believe in hiring people with no experience. I was desperate enough and hungry enough to embellish my resumé; I was fairly sure they wouldn’t bother checking with Whitcombe & Tombs in New Zealand to confirm whether I had worked there as a junior copy editor or, as was the actual case, a junior bookstore clerk.

The best memoirs provide insights into an era and the people, including the author, who made it memorable. Some, like Michael Korda’s highly entertaining Another Life, give you intimate, closely observed portraits of writers, politicians, stars, and adventurers; others, like Diana Athill’s Stet and (my favourite) Somewhere Towards the End, leave you with the feeling that you have just engaged with a wonderfully candid, clear-eyed friend who was happy to talk honestly about sex, editing, dogs, and, of course, the writers she has been close to. More recently, there was Robert Gottlieb writing about his astonishingly varied list, which included Lauren Bacall, Robert Caro, Nora Ephron, Bruno Bettelheim, John le Carré, and Mordecai Richler, and about his challenging stint at The New Yorker.

Since I have spent most of my life in the book business, I have met these and many other memoirists: Korda in jodhpurs in his office, Diana Athill in a longish dress carrying a mountain of paper, and Gottlieb, somewhat dishevelled, as he rushed past me on his way to a meeting with Mordecai. I also once met Lennie Goodings, when I was trying to interest her in the work of some of our writers. She was small, intense, and, despite the deafening noise of the Frankfurt Book Fair, totally focused.

Goodings’s new book, A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago, has most of the characteristics of highly enjoyable memoirs, but it is also a fascinating exploration of the women’s movement from the 1970s to almost the present day. Virago, founded in 1973, during the heady days of early feminism and at a time of great political upheavals, was among the first commercially successful self-declared feminist presses, led by women and focused on their points of view, their history, their fiction, their concerns, and their passions. The Viragos knew their audience. They knew that there were many “out there who wanted to understand and be part of this world-changing ‘club’ ” of feminism. Their list, as Lennie Goodings writes, began with a deep sense of purpose, an urgency to prove that women were eager to accept a champion, to read about issues they found important: “Virago and the other feminist houses which preceded and soon followed in Britain and across the world published instinctively, knowing that there was a readership hungry for their books.” At a time when women’s voices were rarely heard on radio or television, let alone in politics and never in boardrooms, this seemed like a revolutionary idea to some. But most women agreed it was about time.

Lennie Goodings and the Viragos helped change publishing.

Gary Doak; Alamy Stock Photo

It’s hard to imagine now, in hindsight, how explosive Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch and Susan Brownmiller’s Against Our Will were, or how Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman and Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room spoke in ways other novels hadn’t. It’s hard to imagine how eager we were for more. It’s good to keep in mind that the Sex Discrimination Act was not passed in the United Kingdom until 1975. In Canada, it was the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, in 1982, that finally included women’s rights; the Employment Equity Act wasn’t adopted until 1986.

Virago’s founder, Carmen Callil, was exacting, brisk, and cajoling, with an almost visceral understanding of publicity. She came from a marketing background and saw no reason why Virago’s books shouldn’t be read by everyone — both men and women. She believed that books could change the world, and she was committed to helping make that change happen. It was “the refusal to be seen as marginal,” Goodings writes of Virago’s first catalogue and bedrock principles: “the desire to inspire and educate and entertain all women, and men too; to bring women’s issues and stories into the mainstream; to demonstrate a female literary tradition.”

Through Virago, the authors Sarah Waters and Angela Carter sensed a world of new possibilities opening up. The novelist and critic Margaret Drabble has even said that Virago Modern Classics, with their distinctive green spines, changed the course of English literary history. By 2020, that list included more than 700 titles, featuring the work of some of the best literature by anyone — man, woman, or other. Elizabeth Taylor, Zora Neale Hurston, Violet Trefusis, Rose Macaulay, Willa Cather, Doris Lessing, Margaret Laurence. I remember the sight of all those green spines lined up, and I still have many of them on my shelves. As Rachel Cooke has said, they remind you “that we connect to the women on whose shoulders we stand.”

Virago’s contemporary fiction list managed to command attention both from the media and from bookstores. No wonder, with the likes of Tatyana Tolstoya, Lisa St Aubin de Terán, Barbara Kingsolver, Claire Messud (I have just reread The Woman Upstairs and recommend it to everyone), and Sarah Waters, who “understands the transforming power of a story.” There was also Virago’s stellar crime fiction, from Sara Paretsky, Amanda Cross, Sarah Dunant, and others; and the list of Virago non-fiction that tackled issues such as ingrained inequality, the objectification of women’s bodies, and rape, incest, and abuse. It was Virago that published Sylvia Fraser’s horrific story My Father’s House in the U.K., for example. (Key Porter first published it in Canada.)

A Bite of the Apple includes numerous long Virago lists, which have been a godsend for me during the time of COVID‑19. They have reminded me of books I wanted to reread (with the perspective of time and experience) and of authors I haven’t read but wanted to — not as a chore but as something to look forward to. But what can be a wonderful “Goodreads” experience for some can become too much for others. At times, too many lists leave not enough room for the fascinating intimate portraits of writers and editors that are a hallmark of great publishing memoirs.

However, the portraits that Goodings does allow space for are delicious. Sarah Dunant, whom she has edited and published for twenty-five years, is daring and unafraid of controversy or of making sudden turns in her own writing career. She is pictured as “a little ferret — down she goes and up she comes — grinning with the prize: the truth.” As Goodings quotes Dunant, “One of feminism’s great achievements is the way it has changed not only the present, but also the past.” Then there’s Angela Carter — clever, witty, eccentric, a woman who loved to talk and often did, for what seemed like hours on end. “She gave of herself, her ideas, her wit, her no-bullshit mind,” as the novelist Marina Warner wrote of Carter in the introduction to The Second Virago Book of Fairy Tales.

Goodings also paints a great picture of Margaret Atwood, who knocked on its head the irritating British notion that Canadians are nice but a bit dull. Too witty, too clever, too observant of her times, Atwood became a British media celebrity. No frontiers or boxes could contain her writing or her personality. She was willing to deal with long, uncomfortable road trips, late trains, mediocre food, and bad hotels, while, through it all, writing brilliant poetry, challenging essays, and big imaginative novels that have remained uncategorizable. Goodings describes how Atwood is edited in three countries simultaneously, and without the confusion that such a scene might conjure. (A memorable group editing session in freezing Toronto helps drive the point home: “We were six — editors and agents — and though we all knew each other, were all experienced editors, and had long worked with her, the feeling of needing to step up, to be good enough, made us all laugh nervously.”)

Goodings also engages with what’s now called the fourth wave of feminism, which she thinks should occupy the space formerly held by its ­predecessors. She takes a courageous step by publishing books by a younger, angrier generation, with its rallying cry of “Fuck the patriarchy.” She recognizes that the fourth wave is less white and more inclusive than the old ones, even if it is in many ways more judgmental. She writes of the 1984 First International Feminist Book Fair, an event that began with “confidence, strength and audacity,” with its ninety-one exhibitors and authors from a number of countries. Yet for Goodings, it ended with a personal sense of failure. No accommodation had been made for women in wheelchairs, and an angry speech by the poet Audre Lorde, decrying the lack of women of colour on the organizing committee, interrupted the jollity of the opening party. But even then, there is a note of hope: Women were at last discovering each other’s stories. “We found each other.”

Goodings writes enthusiastically about taking a chance on Maya Angelou in 1984. “She came often to Britain and we watched as the country fell deeply in love with her: she captured every size and shape of heart — old, young, ignorant, wise, proud, and shy.” Virago published I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings fifteen years after it first appeared in the U.S. (and sold a million copies), and Goodings and Angelou became friends who travelled, laughed, cried, sang, and even danced together: “She had a special hip-rolling move that I and others tried to learn.” There was a real connection between them, one that lasted through many years, as such connections do.

A Bite of the Apple takes a courageous stab at writing about the racism that, despite the accolades for some writers of colour and the emergence of Black presses, still persists in publishing: “Racism, like sexism, is still far from being eradicated, however the writers telling stories and the gatekeepers deciding who gets to tell them is changing. The conversations are shifting.” In her final chapter on giving and taking courage, she quotes Sandi Toksvig (“We’re genetically programmed to tell stories”) and talks about Sarah Waters (“Going well outside oneself, exploring the other, is what good books are about”).

The ownership structure of Virago Press has changed several times since it was founded in 1973. I was sad to learn, in 2006, that it had been sold to one of the multinationals. I feared that its publishing would be curtailed — that its ability to take chances on new voices would be cut. After all, we know that only about 20 percent of the books any of us publish will earn money. So far, as Goodings tells it, this has not happened. But I fear that, eventually, it will.

It was five years after Virago was founded that Lennie Goodings — who was born in Cornwall, Ontario, and attended Queen’s University — arrived on the scene. By then, the press was already a force in British publishing, admired both for its list of brilliant women writers and for its ability to market them successfully to a general audience. She had an idea of some emerging literary forces in Canada but had little interest in the world here after she left. In that sense, our careers diverged, while following somewhat similar paths. I fell in love with Canada and became an outspoken cultural nationalist as I read and published our writers. Like Goodings, I worked in a field long dominated by men who had no interest in power-sharing with women. For both of us, the women’s movement — feminism as we lived it — became fundamental to our longevity in the trenches we chose to inhabit. And both of us are aware of standing on the shoulders of those who preceded us.

Anna Porter is the author of Deceptions, an art-world thriller.