Virago began in 1973 and was part of that decade’s feminist movement. In fact, what Goodings is so good at drawing out in this book is the interrelations between various social and political movements and their correlatives in publishing and literature. Not only does she recover Virago’s story, but she loops in the narratives of various authors and movements, building up a rich and textured historical fabric. There were fierce arguments and differences among feminists about how we should change the world and what it should be changed to, but what is unarguably true is that stories, histories, memoirs, rants, poems, articles, essays, explorations were like fireworks, rockets lighting up possibilities, blowing up old, entrenched ideas; words were going to tear down and rebuild the world
Her book is a hybrid concoction, part memoir, part practical guide to publishing, editing and reading — did you know that in most publishing houses only 20 per cent of titles make a profit? The other 80 per cent lose money or barely break even — with a scattering of affectionate pen-portraits of some of the authors she has worked with. These include Maya Angelou, Margaret Atwood and, most memorably, Grace Paley — ‘little, round, talkative, generous Grace’. What runs through A Bite of the Apple, unifying it and contributing to its charm, is the passion for books you’d expect, but also an impressive idealism, obvious but needing to be reiterated, about the ways in which the published word can change society and help readers to become the people they want to be.
Publishing, most of the people involved in it would agree, is about judgement. But was there ever a writer whose books Goodings didn’t like, or a colleague she couldn’t stand? To be sure, there are some bracing remarks about her early days at Virago in the late 1970s, devilling for its celebrated founders Carmen Callil and Ursula Owen, when ground-down underlings could sometimes be discovered weeping in the lavatory, but for the most part the light that gently emanates from A Bite of the Apple is practically roseate in its hue.
This is an immersive, lovingly written memoir, whose story resonates beyond publishing. There are times when you would like Goodings to be less diplomatic and offer more juicy details of the catfights (Callil believes that anyone who doesn’t like cats has a personality defect). But she is clearly the most even-tempered of the founding members, the one who hasn’t thrown in the towel and the one who has ensured Virago’s thumbprints are all over the culture. She has, too, the “savageness and sharp edges” needed to survive 40 years in publishing, and the heart. Describing the moment when she found she had been outbid for Room by Emma Donoghue, which went on to be made into an Oscar-winning film, she recalls standing “in my front garden sniffing, saying to myself, ‘It’s only a book, it’s only a book, it’s only a book.’ But it didn’t feel like that. When you invest your whole life in the written word it’s never only a book.”
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”.