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When Publishing Women Was a Radical Act: A British Editor Looks Back

Callil looked up and replied: “To change the world, darling. That’s why.”

From the beginning, Virago was beloved and embattled in equal measure. “Chauvinist sows,” pronounced Anthony Burgess. The press coverage could be sour, and often schizophrenic. Could there possibly be enough worthy books by women to publish? Surely with so many women authors, the notion of a women’s press should be obsolete? For some, like the journalist Emma Brockes, Virago “became such a reliable brand that you could buy a book on the strength of the green spine alone.” Others were horrified. “What a name!” the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar lamented. “They publish only women. It reminds me of ladies’ compartments in 19th-century trains, or of a ghetto.”

Goodings is evocative on those years when Virago’s achievements seemed so splendid and yet so insufficient, when the company felt scorched by the scrutiny and riven by internal conflict and jealousy. She still seems singed — as she anxiously, almost compulsively defends Virago’s right to be a profitable business, defends their controversial sale to Little, Brown (now owned by Hachette). She remains cagey on the divisions within the company but recalls, clearly pained, the glee the public seemed to take at news of the infighting.

Charismatic, demanding Callil was the heart of the operation in its early years — and, by her own account, a good deal responsible for much of the office tension. Still, it’s her account of Virago that one really craves; her almost terrifying bluntness and very clear ideas about feminism. Where the unfailingly politic Goodings might describe London in the ’60s as “full of the spirit of liberation,” here’s Callil, talking to a Financial Times reporter this summer, unbound as ever: “We’d fornicate like hell, because the pill came in ’61. But also there was the music, the dancing, the clothes. I lived down the road from Mary Quant, where she opened her first shop, and I tried to fit my thunder thighs into her skinny skirts. It was just lovely.”

With Goodings we have the distinct feeling of always being in earshot of the shareholders; there will be no talk of thighs here, and she’s discreet about her own politics, insisting on a flexible, welcoming notion of feminism. She shows her writers from only their most flattering angles. Tillie Olsen was impossibly selfless. Angela Carter, “such fun.” No achievement of theirs is too small for her to celebrate. She warmly praises Margaret Atwood for being an early adopter of Twitter.

Gooding may not be a revealing writer but she is an honest one. It’s a complicated history she must convey — squaring the achievements and mistakes of the past — and she faces up to it, including a few messy scandals. Chief among them might be when Rahila Khan, a Virago writer supposedly of South Asian descent, was revealed to be the creation of Toby Forward, an Anglican vicar. “Oh, not a time I would like to live through again.”

That comment — its reticence, its light shudder — strikes at what begins to feel central about this story. “A Bite of the Apple” is, as befitting its title, not merely about knowledge but about shame. Pride in Virago was often difficult, Goodings writes. Blame and regret came easier; their efforts already felt so exposed to criticism and mockery. Even as Virago’s mission was to shatter silences, the costs of speech were very clear. And so, perhaps, this deeply modest book that, of all things, contains its own critique and argues against its own circumspection, deploring the feminine habits of “modesty, likability and anxiety.” It’s a memoir that doesn’t merely look backward, but in its form, in all its limitations, gestures at the work to be done. It’s a memoir of a Virago reader.

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