Friday, October 12, 2007

The Virtues of Virago

My favourite writers at this time were all men - Beckett, Flann O'Brien, BS Johnson, Alasdair Gray - but at a time when I was also struggling to find my own voice as a novelist, Dorothy Richardson flung open a door on to a new world of possibility. And, while my student contemporaries were immersing themselves in the new generation of British writers (the Granta generation, you might call it: Swift, Amis, Barnes and McEwan most prominent among them), I found myself drawn back repeatedly - almost perversely - to those bottle-green spines.
Author Jonathan Coe talks in the Guardian about how the Virago Modern Classics series and the women authors who changed his literary landscape forever.

Virago Press:
the first mass-market publisher for 52% of the population – women. An exciting new imprint for both sexes in a changing world'
was set up
by Carmen Calil, Ursula Owen, and Harriet Spicer (left) in 1973. The Modern Classics series was launched in 1978 with:
... a list dedicated to the celebration of women writers and to the rediscovery and reprinting of their works ... (to demonstrate) the existence of a female literary tradition and to broaden the sometimes narrow definition of a classic.
Among the authors brought to prominence by the series are many now widely acknowledged as among the world's best writers, including Margaret Atwood, Willa Cather, Grace Paley,
Pat Barker, and Angela Carter.

But was it necessary to have press solely for books written by women? And even if it was necessary in the dim and distant 70's, haven't we come along way since then?

Coe believes that there remains a gender bias in publishing "subtle and unspoken" even now.
If we take the Booker prize (for want of anything else) as being indicative of what the British literary establishment has considered most attention-worthy over the past 40 years, a clear preference emerges. In the first 30 years of its history, 108 of those shortlisted for the prize (63.5 per cent) were male, only 62 (36.5 per cent) were female. The Orange prize was set up in 1996, partly to correct perceived gender bias in the Booker (after it had gone through a particularly chauvinist phase - in the years 1991-95, only five women were shortlisted, compared to 24 men), but in the past nine years of the Booker, the pattern still hasn't changed noticeably: 33 men (61 per cent) have been shortlisted, compared to 21 women (39 per cent). ... Perhaps one shouldn't read too much into these statistics. And yet do they not imply, cumulatively, that while the reading public (spurred on by book groups and the Richard and Judy show) now has no hesitation in embracing and indeed privileging the work of women writers, the female novelist might still feel that the ultimate imprimatur of literary status - not the Booker prize itself, of course, but that indefinable sense of being taken seriously - still dangles tantalisingly out of reach?
If you are inspired to rush out to pick up the Modern Classics back list, the best place to try in the Klang Valley is Skoob.

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