A Bite of the Apple

5 May

Swindon Literature Festival’s offering at noon today was Lennie Goodings and very interesting it was too as she discussed her book A Bite of the Apple, on four decades of ground breaking publishing. Here she sets out how Virago began, with its different female personalities, to publish and showcase women’s literature. Virago wanted to give women a voice and bring them, and their writing, out of partial obscurity into central stage but there was also the difficulties in making money from writing.

Lennie came from near Niagara Falls, Canada, but was inspired by 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff and the many bookshops then in London to come to England. She only intended to stay a year, but soon found herself in the world of book publishing, often controlled by men. Eventually she joined Virago, then a very small company comprised of women, where they took it in turns to clean the office amongst other things. Here she came involved, back in the late 1970s, in a new wave of real and powerful publishing; new wave feminism. However, even today, Lennie said, women’s books were only reviewed by other women and the word ‘writer’ is not universal, as when used alone, it usually refers to a man, so attitudes still need to change.

She also felt that if a man wrote about domestic things, it was viewed as important but it is still not seen as a neutral voice as when a woman writes about domestic affairs it is not so well regarded. Lennie said, in order to change attitudes about women and their writing, you need more women in a position of power, so everything is not viewed from a male perspective. Change is difficult and causes much upset and trouble but corrects itself eventually.

In answer from a question from interviewer Matt Holland, Lennie said that when deciding what is literature, you should treasure writing. Quality of writing is important but even if it is not so good, you can still bring a story that people need to hear and consider. When Virago was deciding what authors to publish, they took into account different views and consulted experts. Although publishers look at creativity, they also have a view towards a profit, as obviously they need money to survive as a company. 80 percent of books do not make a profit, so when considering a manuscript, publishers have to decide how many copies will they sell before they offer any advances.

The publisher is taking a risk and they also have to pay their printers and paper suppliers etc. Very few people can make a living as an author and because it is so difficult to make money they need another form of paid occupation.

Matt wondered about any infighting in Virago. Lennie felt that you may feel passionate about something but you have to compromise and consider also the potential profit capabilities. Matt also asked about courage and putting your head above the parapet when stating some, possibly contentious, views. Lennie replied that you have to understand who you are talking to and moderate your language. To change things you shouldn’t hit someone over the head with your views, but simply show them that change comes on many fronts.

Finally Matt asked why Virago didn’t publish A Bite of the Apple.  Lennie was commissioned by O.U.P. and, nevertheless, she felt that Virago was too close and it was better to have an outside view.

Thinking of outside views, I feel that Lennie Goodings’ book would be an excellent choice for a book group, with its aspects of promoting female literature and profit -v- creativity.  Hopefully it would promote some heated but civilised discussion lasting at least until the tea/wine and cakes arrived.  Something to look forward to when all the restrictions are removed.

Words by Anne Ryder

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