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.

Arts & Entertainment
Maisie Williams of Game of Thrones now
tvMajor roles that grow with their child actors are helping them to steal the show on TV
Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit