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A life in publishing: Lennie Goodings of Virago Press

A life in publishing: Lennie Goodings of Virago Press

What I love about publishing is that no matter how sophisticated, how technological, how digital our industry becomes, one fact remains: publishing still comes down to one person telling another, you must read this book. Publishing is driven by that passion, conviction, and excitement.

Lennie Goodings, A Bite of the Apple: A Life With Books, Writers and Virago

[photo of Lennie Goodings]
Charlie Hopkinson

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).

The refusal to be seen as marginal; the desire to inspire and educate and entertain all women, and men too; to bring women’s issues and stories into the mainstream; to demonstrate a female literary tradition; these passions and beliefs were the bedrock of Virago.

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."

I often quote her to younger writers, particularly when they need consoling. When things on our endless road trips were not going quite to plan, if we had bad hotels or late trains or when interviewers were clueless, I would apologize and she would just laugh and say in her low drawl, ‘Never mind, it’s all material’ – for a novel or a short story, I would imagine. On reviews that didn’t please us she would say she would prefer the reviewer to review the book that was written, not the one the reviewer wished was written, but, oh well.

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,

I remember the first time I read a contemporary novel set in Toronto, on streets I recognized, in a country that was mine. I felt a thrill of recognition, of validation; that the background to my life was worthy of being in a book – it was that important. I’d had no understanding until then about how I, the reader, was identifying with characters and places that had nothing to do with me. I was in the Midwest, a young girl in a covered wagon; I was Pip, in a graveyard frightened by Magwitch; I was Tom, painting the fence; I was frightened by a black spot in Treasure Island; I was Oliver, running from the law with Fagin; I was flying with Peter Pan; and I was Anne, with an ‘e’, with hated red hair and freckles on a small island in eastern Canada; all places, people, and time periods I had never experienced. Of course this is exactly what fiction should do for a reader: transport them to another time and place, make them live and breathe the hero or heroine’s life. But suddenly to have a book that really was about me, in my neck of the woods, was eye-opening. It meant I too was important.

[book cover graphic of A Bite of the Apple]A Bite of the Apple: A Life with Books, Writers and Virago is published in Canada by Biblioasis.

[graphic of cover of Queen's Alumni Review issue 4, 2020]