It’s felt a bit of a grim year for events in the wider world: terror, Brexit, xenophobia, squabbles on social media. So it was truly heartening this week to watch the documentary on Virago on Monday night: Virago: Changing The World One Page At A Time. (It’s on YouTube too if you can’t find it on iPlayer.)
So many of my formative reads, dating back to the 1980s when I was at university, are Viragos: Maya Angelou, Marilynne Robinson, Patricia Highsmith, Margaret Atwood, Sarah Waters (Fingersmith is my favourite novel), Angela Carter, Mary Webb. And Willa Cather! So many of my favourite books have that half-eaten apple on the spine (what a great logo).
Though publishers take great pains in creating imprints as brands, it’s probably the case that very few names in publishing have real brand recognition for most readers. Maybe only two, I’ve heard said. Penguin is one (such exquisite design and canny marketing, as well as editorial nous). And Virago is the other.
Certain cultural institutions belong to us all: Penguin Books, the BBC, Virago. I imagine you must identify with Virago even more strongly if you are a woman, but men can just let Virago be that bright big sister who’s always there with a good book recommendation.
Virago was acquired by Little, Brown when I was working there, and us acquiring editors all attended the same weekly editorial meeting. I remember the Wednesday (for editorial meetings were always on Wednesdays, and smoke-filled) when Tipping the Velvet was presented – such a good idea, such strong sample material, and the excitement was infectious. I remember Maya Angelou visiting the office and wholly captivating the room with her height, her charm, and her recitation of a Shakespeare sonnet. I remember dancing with the publisher of Virago at my wedding (Lennie loves to dance). I remember that the last book I published when I worked in house was Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls (the reissue, of course – I could hardly believe it had been left to go out of print elsewhere, and that I acquired UK rights so cheaply, but at least I can say I published the bestselling novel in the world, haha); I remember feeling proud that a few years later it ended up on the Virago Modern Classics list, alongside Peyton Place – these books might raise a few eyebrows about their literary qualities, but they were gritty and groundbreaking in their time for their treatment of certain subject matters. Quality is so objective anyway.
I’m not always comfortable with men making affirmations about being a feminist, not least because various men saying things like that have been known to treat women like shit. Or maybe it’s the case that I’m just not comfortable with affirmations, which can feel too easy, or lazy. But watching this documentary made me feel yes, I am a feminist too. A lot of the writers I’ve edited or published are women, and a lot of the work I continue to do is invested in empowering women to raise their voices and tell their stories and be heard. This should not be a matter of gender, but it often seems to be the case that women writers need a certain boost of confidence to help their self-esteem as writers. (Actually, I think this goes for lots of men, too, though I dare to observe that male writers don’t always reach out for help in quite the same way as female ones.)
Book coverage on tv is often pretty wan, but this documentary really lit me up – it’s essential viewing for all bookfolk. It brought tears to my eyes at a couple of points: the dedication, the hard work, the brilliance of the brilliant publisher Carmen Callil, the sheer passion of everyone working there – the sacrifices that were made to publish good books well, and the commitment to making a difference in the world. This continues today with Lennie Goodings and her team and all the books they publish.
And all those great authors.
Lennie wrote a lovely piece in the vein of the documentary, but it’s currently headlined ‘Feminism, pornography and lots of crying in the loos’. Come on! I know this is the Telegraph, but is it really necessary to get clickbait on the back of porn and tears in the toilet (which were only ever so marginally and jokily mentioned in this excellent documentary anyway).
And here’s a link to an older post with a writing experiment that seems relevant to the idea of books that change the world: Write! A Manifesto. Maybe write a manifesto for your book (a current one or a new one), and then write a key scene in which some essential change gets surfaced.
We can make a difference. This year, it feels good to know that.