You’ve come along way, baby
Sue Wilson looks back at twenty years of Virago, now the world‘s largest feminist publisher and celebrating its birthday this month.
in the free ‘keepsake‘ anthology Virago have produced to celebrate their twentieth birthday. Margaret Atwood recalls the company when it consisted of four people working from a single cramped Soho room. in the days before the Publicity Director knew what a dump bin (:1 publisher‘s bookshop display stand) was. in the midst of much frenetic activity was fellow ‘wild colonial girl'. Carmen Callil. Virago’s prime mover and shaker (and still Chainvoman); Atwood asked her why. of the various publishers founded around the same time. Virago was growing while others were failing: ‘Well‘. she said. ‘those other people were — er — men.‘ They were used to having rooms of their own. and secretaries to do the routine jobs for them. but secretaries cost extra money. which Virago did not at that moment have. ‘Here.’ she said. ‘we lick our own stamps.‘
Two decades on. Virago has without question achieved that rare thing. a successful marriage of entrepreneurialism and idealistic polemical purpose —
Virago: up there with the big boys it is now the largest feminist publishing company in the world. publishing around |()() new books each year. with a backlist numbering over 600 titles. its dark green spines are recognised around the English- speaking world. it's up there with the big boys when it comes to international literary heavyweights — Atwood. Maya Angelou. Michele Roberts. Tatyana Tolstaya. Christa Wolf — and it has earned the affections of female bibliophiles everywhere for the multitude of previously lost treasures it has unearthed in its Modern Classics series.
Did those early pioneers expect to come so far? ‘()ne part of your mind was located firmly in the present. and you had that kind of adrenalin that comes from thinking the whole thing could disappear in a puff ofsmoke.‘ recalls llarriet Spicer. now Managing Director. ‘But another part of you had a sense ofcertainty that this really was an idea for which the timing was right; women were so passionately responsive to the existence of the company from the word go. We had a very clear objective: books by and about women for everyone. as one of our slogans had it. and it was always our intention to grow. because once you grow you've got more slots on your list. the opinions you can
represent. the pleasure you can give with ﬁction. all increase — you have so much more to offer.’
Virago has ﬂourished in spite ofthe drastic change
in the ideological climate between the optimistic 70s and the cynical 90s; it has sharpened up its business skills and marketing practices to compete effectively in today’s cut-throat publishing world. dominated by huge conglomerates and powerful bookshop chains.
Equally impressively. it is thriving as an avowedly feminist company at a time when many are touting
the line that feminism is unfashionable ifnot redundant. ‘Well. there are two things here.‘ says
Spicer. ‘You meet Marina Wamer. and she’s been
going to all these meetings and talks and is saying.
isn‘t it interesting. the groundswell of young women saying feminism isn’t for them. we tnust discuss this. Then on the other hand you have the equally wonderfully intelligent and energetic journalist Yvonne Roberts discovering an absolutely passionate responsiveness — the same words I used about the reaction when Virago started - to the various ideas she‘s been discussing. about ways forward for feminism today — i think that to and fro is what you live with these days. but I think the spirit to keep women‘s demands on the agenda is certainly there.‘
In the midst of their birthday celebrations. what are Virago‘s plans or ambitions for the next twenty years? ‘Oh. we‘ve got lots ofthose.‘ Spicer says. ‘but basically it comes down to continuing to grow and remaining true to our principles. really. that‘s the idea.‘
lirago have produced three speeial 201/1 birthday publications: the Keepsake (free front bookshops). with emttributions by Maya Angelou. A. S. Byatt. Kate Millett. Miehele Roberts. Marina Warner and many more; Inﬁnite Riehes (£5.99). edited by Lynn Knight. a (‘olleetion oj'stories selected front the Modern Classies series. and Virago New Poets ( £5. 99). an anthology of verse by previously impublished writers. They are also holding Birthday Party evenings in Glasgow and Edinburgh books/tops — see Iivents listings for details.
:— Naked Ambition
‘Okay, lets talk about llude Men?’ said the teacher. Amanda Filipacchi blushes when she remembers the first time she produced her manuscript in her creative writing class at Columbia 2 University. llow firmly in print, her debut novel is one to brandish on the ’ bus at your peril. But there is more to this book than a blatant marketing ploy. For Flllpacchi has juxtaposed the mundane with the bizarre to create a shrewd, magical and acutely emotive tale where nudity is just a state of clotheslessness.
llude Men is the tale of an ordinary man, Jeremy Acidophllus, who, at 29, has reached the unenviable position of fact checker and filing cabinet supremo. lle may be slightly eccentric - he holds long conversations with his
cat - but nothing prepares him for an entanglement with the extraordinary painter, Lady Henrietta, and her precociously-developed eleven-year- old daughter, Sara. Picked up while he is eating .lelI-o in a cafe and persuaded to model naked by the delectable Henrietta, he enters a strange world of broken taboos, Mickey Mouse masks and warped nursery rhyme scenarios. Labelled a classic Optical Illusion Man; almost ugly/beautifullsulcidal, but not quite,
hesitation, seduces him.
most people think.’
Sara chooses him as the man to lose her virginity to and, with little
With Sara, younger than Lolita or Priscilla Presley, Filipacchi could be treading on dangerous ground. Is she
‘Sara has a woman’s body and a woman’s mind. I think that every person is an individual and in her case she happens to be very similar to an adult both mentally and physically. But that doesn’t mean that everyone should be that way. Some children realise their sexuality earlier and should have more freedom.’ Victoria Gillick would probably be outraged, but this isn't the type of book to skim through for a quick thrill, and has some serious themes. Writing from a male perspective, Fillpacchi has tried to maintain a distance from the women in her story. ‘I felt as if I could be more objective, further from myself. I am a feminist and writing from the view of a man shows that men and women aren’t as different as
Exploring childhood sexuality, gender and feminism Fillpacchi puts just enough humour into this work to give it spin. Jeremy falls in love with a post-modernist magician whose tricks include pulling a bunch of flowers out of her boot and revealing that the inside of her jacket is a different colour. ‘A comment on modern abstract art,’ she points out.
llude Men is a weird, wry, smart book which deals ultimately with temptation and guilt. Crazin witty and outrageously sad, her slightly distorted contemporary backdrop gives her themes the freshness and resonance of a modem-day fairy tale. ‘lam drawn to slightly supernatural subjects, I can’t help it. It’s just the
know. My parents have a very strong interest in surrealist art so I was exposed to it from when I was very little. I think it’s affected my brain somehow.’ (Beatrice Colin). . llude Men is published by llelnemann l
at £9.99. “ J
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way I write. Maybe it’s a good way to i put serious points across, I don’t 3