Virago founder looks to Labour: Carmen Callil leaves publishing to take up politics

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The Independent Online
CARMEN CALLIL, one of Britain's most successful publishers, and co-founder of the feminist publishing house Virago, may bring her talents to the Labour Party after deciding to leave publishing for good.

Ms Callil, 55, confirmed yesterday that she was quitting her job at the American-owned publishing conglomerate Random House where she has been Publisher at Large for the past nine months. Before that she was managing director of Chatto & Windus for 11 years. It is now owned by Random House. Virago began in the Seventies, at her kitchen table.

There had been speculation that Ms Callil had fallen out with Gail Rebuck, the head of Random House, and had tired of the changes in publishing over the past decade which has seen idiosyncratic British publishing houses lose their identity after being swallowed up in American takeovers. Yesterday she flatly denied the first speculation but was more circumspect about the second.

'Gail and I are best friends,' she said. 'It is nonsense to say we have fallen out. The American takeovers are actually very good news for authors. Authors get more money and better marketing.' (She is reputed to have paid Michael Holroyd pounds 625,000 for a biography of George Bernard Shaw.)

'But', she went on, 'I'm not suited to publishing anymore, to the takeovers of the smaller houses. I think I'm too eccentric and odd. It's not an anti-American thing though. I had far more trouble with the British. I've been a publisher for 25 years and it's a very time- consuming job. I've been wanting to go for some time but I wanted to wait until I was happy with the younger generation.

I hope that doesn't sound ageist.'

She had had offers, she said, to do television and radio work as well as to write herself. But she added that she was also interested in becoming more involved in politics. 'I wouldn't mind doing something quite different,' she said. 'The thing I'm most interested in is politics, but I don't want to be an MP. I would be happy to do work for the Labour Party. We need a different government. I would like to work behind the scenes.'

The Labour Party is in the process of setting up a panel of advisors on its arts and media policy. Ursula Owen, Callil's fellow Virago founder, was one of those advising the party on arts and media policy before the last election.

Callil's list of authors included Iris Murdoch and A S Byatt. At Chatto, as well as promoting such talents as Angela Carter, she published (with mixed success) a series of CounterBlasts, booklets which were intended to start debate on current political issues.

But she will be best remembered for the success of Virago, which rediscovered many female authors. 'I'm remain very proud of Virago,' she said yesterday. 'It achieved much more than I expected it to.

'A lot of the books are now being taught, and people watch them on the telly - names such as Edith Wharton and Margaret Attwood.'

(Photograph omitted)