A life in publishing: Lennie Goodings of Virago Press
by Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago
Nov 11, 2020
In her new memoir, Lennie Goodings reflects on her 40-year career with feminist publishing company Virago Press. Goodings joined Virago in 1978, five years after it was started as “the first mass-market publisher for 52 per cent of the population – women.” From her first part-time position as a freelance publicist for the small London, U.K., company, Goodings went on to become publishing director, then publisher and editorial director, and is now the Chair of Virago Press (which is now part of the Little, Brown Book Group).
Goodings and her colleagues launched the careers of British up-and-coming female authors and expanded the audiences for others. With its Modern Classics series, Virago attained the rights to both works published in other countries and those published in other eras. Margaret Atwood was one of Virago’s Modern Classics authors, but so was Rosamond Lehmann, whose coming-of-age novels, originally published in the 1930s, were reprinted by Virago in the 1980s. New readers discovered Zora Neale Hurston, Willa Cather, Stevie Smith, and many more, all thanks to Virago Press. And Goodings and her colleagues didn’t focus just on fiction. Virago’s non-fiction catalogue ranges from a reprint of the 1914 autobiography of suffragette Emmaline Pankhurst to the 2018 book on modern-day terrorism by journalist Souad Mekhennet and the works of Maya Angelou.
Goodings writes movingly about the writers with whom she has worked, shedding light on both their work and their personalities. She was a little starstuck when she first met Margaret Atwood, whose early novels she had read first in high school and then in her “CanLit” class at Queen’s. They met at Virago in 1979, when Atwood was still little known in the U.K. and Goodings organized her first countrywide book tour. Goodings writes, “It was inconceivable to me that I would eventually be her Virago paperback editor and publisher – and friend."
Over the years, as the Women’s Lib movement of the 1970s morphed into third-wave feminism and beyond, the work of Virago Press has been seen as too radical by some, too mainstream by others. Lennie Goodings can live with that. But is a women’s press irrelevant? Never. There are so many more stories to be told; so many more readers who want to see themselves in books, both as they are and as they can become. As Goodings writes,