Still maligned, still loved, still needed: On the occasion of Virago's 20th birthday Natasha Walter asks, what are we celebrating?

ALL PUBLISHERS have birthdays. But Virago's is the occasion for real celebration. Tomorrow, at Conway Hall, some of the best actresses in the country - Fiona Shaw, Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter, among others - will come together to read sections from the most famous backlist of all. The words of Antonia White, Angela Carter, Maya Angelou, Michele Roberts, Rosamund Lehmann, Stevie Smith, Vera Brittain, Willa Cather, Rebecca West, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Lessing, Adrienne Rich - voices from a canon we once didn't even know we had - have been joined together in a collage of female experience, called, suitably, Her Infinite Variety.

Our first reaction must be straightforward gratitude. Perhaps someone would have done it, eventually, if Virago hadn't, reprinted Dorothy Richardson and May Sinclair, Edith Wharton and Vita Sackville-West, and all the other women who are now part of our literary furniture. But Virago did it - and did it beautifully.

'The first example of niche marketing,' a female editor at a mainstream publishers said last week. But the philosophy was not about marketing, and perhaps that is why the marketing was so successful. As Fiona Shaw says, 'It's not just that they're a 'women's publisher', but that they've got a philosophy. It goes deep. It connects to the whole world movement for women.'

If so many women have been touched by that philosophy - and few literate women don't have any dark-green spines on their shelves - that testifies to Virago's feeling for the true spirit of women's liberation. No false proselytising, no fake idols, but an honest realisation of neglected experience and unsung talent. We must admire that achievement. But Virago is the feminist movement in microcosm, in that its achievements have been enormous and not big enough. It rediscovered a canon, but sold it mainly to women readers, not across the board. And it has had problems consolidating its success. Virago has failed to keep a large stable of contemporary writers. It has Maya Angelou, Michele Roberts, Margaret Atwood and Janette Turner Hospital. But it often loses writers as their reputations grow - Shena Mackay (to Heinemann), Bharati Mukherjee (to Chatto), Angela Carter (to Chatto), Lucy Ellman (to Hamish Hamilton), for instance. There's no space for bitterness, of course, but Virago could rightly feel a little peeved. Before it began, it was unthinkable that you might see a whole wall of women's fiction. What was once invisible experience now turns up in every publisher's catalogue, and it has to fight with once-reluctant houses to publish them.

Given that its greatest success has been its list of classics, can Virago survive and develop? People outside Virago are often sceptical, but Virago remains buoyant financially and emotionally. Its writers suggest why they remain so attractive. Janette Turner Hospital says: 'I didn't seek them out because they're a women's publisher, but because they make extremely handsome books. And I like the fact that they're prepared to keep one in print.' Michele Roberts agrees: 'The reason I went to them was quite simply that they seemed to be coming up with the best at that time. Best marketing, best editing, best financial offer.' Both of them still feel positive about it being a women's house: 'It gives back one's tarnished faith in sisterhood,' Hospital says. 'I've spent many years thinking about feminism,' Roberts says, 'and to me it's central. That means that Virago doesn't feel at all marginal to me.'

Both testify to an extraordinary feeling of good morale, a sense of equality and friendship that they get at Virago and not at the big smart offices of the publishing conglomerates. In other words, they don't go there because it's all women, but the independence, the sisterly feelings and the general buzz that being a women's publishers creates, added to the true professionalism, makes for an attractive aura.

If you look around you can see there are still good reasons for Virago to go on. And on. The way that people tend to tell its story, with an emphasis on the virago herself, Carmen Callil, suggests the only way they want to understand the success of a female publishing house is by making it the tale of one extraordinary woman, a singular, inimitable, rather unwomanly character. That is the cultural myth British feminism finds so hard to overcome - that women in power are a bizarre anomaly. Until it's overcome, feminism should be unembarrassed about a certain amount of separatism.

And although many Virago stalwarts have spread out to other publishers, the position of women in publishing is still questionable. There is a number of extremely able, extremely visible female editors and agents. But the financial clout resides with the men in the boardrooms. As a survey done by Women in Publishing in 1987 put it: Twice as Many, Half as Powerful - and it is still true that women enter at a lower level than men and tend to hit a glass ceiling early in their careers. As Georgia Garrett, senior editor at Picador, says: 'Perhaps in an ideal world Virago wouldn't be needed. This is not an ideal world.' So Virago is still groundbreaking, being women-only right through to the top.

Whatever the reason, despite the resurrection of our lost canon, serious women writers do not command the same space in bookshops, literary pages and the crowded cultural scene as male writers. Everyone locates the discrimination in different places - some in the publishers' boardrooms; some in the marketing departments, since women writers of serious fiction are rarely given the kind of initial outlay and subsequent hype of, say, a Vikram Seth; some in the attitudes of the sales reps, who are overwhelmingly male. Some blame the press reception above all else. A 1992 survey shows women wrote only about 20 per cent of the reviews in national newspapers, and so their taste is never well enough represented.

And some locate it elsewhere, in the lives of the writers themselves. 'It takes a lot of cheek, a lot of self-confidence, to think you can write a novel,' Alexandra Pringle, once of Virago and now editorial director of Hamish Hamilton, says. 'When I started at Virago, writers weren't coming to us so we went out looking for them. I found that many women needed an initial contract before they could even allow themselves to dare. Lucy Ellman and Elspeth Barker, for instance, whom I first commissioned then, needed that kind of encouragement.' As A S Byatt noted when judging writers for the Best of Young British Novelists list, many prizes with an age ceiling tend to discriminate against women, who often start writing later in life, after they've had children and gained in confidence. However Virago chooses to develop - and its present catalogue contains its first book by a man - we can still celebrate its resistance to that kind of underlying and unspoken sexism.

Ursula Owen, one of the founders of Virago, who first put the idea of celebrating Virago on stage to the Dangerous Reputations theatre group, was hugely surprised and fired by the fact that so many younger women wanted to celebrate the birthday: 'There was a superb inter-generational connection that I didn't really expect.' But she was saddened that women were drawn in by their own awareness of how bad things still are: 'Very little has really changed. Economically and socially there have been some changes, but they're very small, quite disturbingly small.' As Harriet Walter says, 'In very subtle ways, in publishing as everywhere, the arbiters of taste are still male.' What Virago's birthday tells us is that the struggle is not over, the struggle may never be over.

Her Infinite Variety, put together by Ursula Owen, Sally Alexander, Jean McCrindle, will be at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London WC1, tomorrow at 7.30pm. For details of further performances throughout the country, call Virago on 071-383 5150.

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