Lennie Goodings has had a long and highly respected career in publishing. She is chair of Virago Press, the pioneering publishing house that champions women’s writing. She’s been with Virago since the 1980s and A Bite of the Apple is an account of the company’s journey from punkish upstart to literary stalwart. It’s also – more juicily – about her experiences as an editor working with authors including Sarah Waters, Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood and Sarah Dunant.
For the historical lead-in, Goodings maintains a careful, stately tone, like the voiceover in a prestigious BBC period drama about ladies: The House of Elliot, but for books. The story is one of artistry, ambition, activism and a fierce desire to marry the three. Putting women’s lives, women’s stories and women’s words back into history requires work. A Bite of the Apple is about the women who did this work from the 1970s onwards, a time of huge activism around race, class and sex, when “women wanted a voice, women wanted to understand their history, women wanted to see themselves on the page… women wanted their share”.
The book is informative about the realities of the publishing world: the small offices and narrow margins, keeping one’s integrity while needing a hit to keep it all afloat. And is A Bite of The Apple one such hit? Well, it totally lacks the malice that makes a literary memoir truly great – the touch of poison that seasons the recipe. Except for a sociopathic priest (watch out for that brief but nasty episode) Goodings really doesn’t have a bad word for anyone, and it’s a tremendous shame. Occasionally a dash of grit enters, as when describing Regeneration author Pat Barker, who had early success with bold novels about northern, working-class women until “she left Virago to write books about war from men’s point of view”.
The book snaps into wit and colour when she reflects on her experiences as a dedicated and worldly editor. She is great at acute, observant character snapshots: “I think of Sarah [Dunant] like a little ferret – down she goes and then up she comes – grinning with the prize – the truth.” The late, great Angela Carter “was a sociable soul with voracious curiosity… she was clever, witty and eccentric in her dress and manner which gave her a slightly distracted demeanour – but she was actually bull’s-eye sharp with bracing, sometimes lacerating, observations”.
At the core of this book is a curiously Victorian message about the value of sincerity and of acting in good faith. Goodings’s love of books is the seed from which her outer success has sprung, and when she writes from her real self – the voracious reader, not the dutiful historian – the book is moving and hugely inspiring: “Stories, histories, memoirs, rants, poems…. were like fireworks, rockets lighting up possibilities, blowing up old, entrenched ideas; words were going to tear down and rebuild the world.”
Even her briefest comments about editing text and bringing a manuscript to publication zing with deep understanding. “Writing – and therefore editing – is tough, close work,” she says, “but helping an author as she forges words, ideas and characters into a shape and then watching as it alchemises into life: for me, that is a hard-won, deep pleasure… What is editing? It’s sitting up at a table to read, paying close attention to every line and word, pencil in hand to mark the places where one is bored or confused or excited or engaged. It’s being preternaturally alert to one’s responses to the text.” When she makes a meaningful suggestion to an author “it’s almost like hitting ‘tilt’ at the machines: you can see the author light up and the penny dropping all the way”.
As a cultural history, A Bite of the Apple is clear. As a reminder of female artists’ ongoing fight for space and respect, it’s necessary. As a riff on writers and writing, it’s essential.
• A Bite of the Apple by Lennie Goodings is published by Oxford University Press (£16.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p over £15