There is some considerable distance between being lambasted by a characteristically curmudgeonly Anthony Burgess for militant political chauvinism, and squeamish recoil from ideological commitment under the guise of avoiding ‘political correctness’. That both of these quotations refer to the public face of Britain’s Virago Press during the course of a single decade highlights the extent to which the women’s publishing house has reinvented itself for a new generation of readers. Such a marked volte-face must derive either from a suspiciously late twentieth-century obsession with self-reinvention and novelty for its own sake or, more fundamentally, from a crisis of house identity suffered by Virago and its directors. Such a seizure of self-doubt can be pinpointed with unusual accuracy: the linchpin between the two faces of Virago outlined above is the sale of the press in November 1995 to Little, Brown & Co. UK, a subsidiary of the US-based multinational Time Warner.1 The sale, and the flurry of negative publicity that surrounded it, represented a critical phase not only for Virago, but for feminist publishing as a whole, as falling profits and uninspiring frontlists forced reconsideration of feminist publishing’s agenda – a thorough-going industry soul-searching of the kind that Virago had not undertaken publicly in the course of its 23-year history. For this reason, the 1995 sale of Virago serves as a critical vantage point from which to survey the press’s history and against which the company’s post-1996 relaunch can be measured. Beneath the breathless rush of the new Virago’s promotional copy, it is possible to discern a frantic search for the winning formula by which Virago formerly united its profits with its politics – and the belief that this elusive link is capable of being reconstituted in the consumer-dominated, politically skittish 1990s and beyond.
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