“A virago is a woman who demonstrates exemplary and heroic qualities. The word comes from the Latin word vir, meaning virile ‘(man)’ to which the suffix -ago is added, a suffix that effectively re-genders the word to be female.”
Waging a war on the stigma of female authors, 40 years ago a group of women sat down and created one of the greatest publishing houses in the business. Boasting authors from Sarah Waters and Maya Angelou, to Linda Grant and Margaret Atwood, and publications from Living Dolls to Baroness Shirley Williams’ memoir Climbing the Bookshelves, Virago is not your typical publisher.
Because, at the end of the day, it would be completely legitimate to describe Virago as specialist: after all, their aim in starting out as a publishing house was to publish fiction and non-fiction by female authors, also branching out into male authors tackling feminist issues. But while Virago undeniably specialises in women’s writing, many nowadays would (thankfully!) hardly consider women’s writing as a niche area. Sadly, that was not always the case.
The Virago website describes founder Carmen Callil as “determined to drag women’s writing off the sidelines”, and, for me, this is the epitome of Virago’s work in pioneering women’s writing. In order for women’s writing to be read as we read it now – barely thought of, plucked off the shelves as frequently as men’s writing, Callil had to drag them from the murky edges of underground movements and out into the shiny light of the bookshop shelves. What we may consider normal nowadays has perhaps only become a normality through these efforts by Virago to drag women into that sphere.
Virago has also been credited with bringing lesbian writing into the mainstream, making it available to “normal” readers, as opposed to solely those who devour high-brow literature. They were among the publishing houses to bring Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness to the British public after an obscenity ban on it expressed disbelief that a publishing house would try to bring such a novel (read: depicting lesbian love) to an audience of normal people. Author Val McDermid recently praised the massive progress in popularity for lesbian writing – no coincidence then that she is a Virago author.
Virago very much paved the way for the advocation of women’s writing, with a spattering of feminist publishing houses that prioritised women opening across the UK in the ensuing years – 11 in total by 1988.
The introduction of Virago’s Modern Classics range in 1978 was also a big step towards canonising female authors: advocating the equal importance of women in the world of literature, ensuring that those women remained in print and appreciated was a big part of Virago’s work. By including them in their Classics, they secured the inclusion of women that the literary world now takes for granted.
It seems almost bizarre to us now to ask whether women are as prominent in the literary world as men. With writers like Hilary Mantel, Elif Shafak and Zadie Smith dominating publishing discourse, it is a question that rarely crosses an avid reader’s mind. However, it is on this 40th anniversary of Virago that we must consider this question, and must truly appreciate the work they have done for women’s writing. The fact that we cannot imagine getting our female authors from underground publishers, nor picture a Waterstones without representation for half the population is a brilliant, brilliant reality, and it is Virago’s dragging women into the spotlight that we must thank.
Today, Virago’s success story does not solely lie in its work for women. Virago is a company that is rooted in the personal experience of reading – communication and feedback – encouraging readers to comment on the suitability of book covers, blurbs, typos, and hosting a prominent Book Club on their website. In an industry where increasingly even authors don’t have a say over their books’ covers, this is a crucial aspect of their ongoing success.
Virago’s website claims their core value is publishing books that tell stories about our lives. Thanks to them, we can read the stories of both halves of the population.
Virago’s new publication 50 Shades of Feminism is out now, celebrating 50 different women’s voices, and all types of different experiences of womanhood