On February 20th we’ll be at the British Library for our reading, writing and publishing event: Reading and Being Read. To get you in the mood, we’ll be presenting a series of features throughout the month focusing on the great work of some of the writers and small presses who’ll be joining us on the day.
Here, Lynn Michell, founder of Linen Press, talks to us about her passion for publishing great women’s writing…
Lynn, the first book you published was Childhood’s Hill, a turn of the century memoir by 93-year-old Marjorie Wilson – what did you spot in it that other publishers had missed?
I saw in Marjorie’s prose a rare lyricism and was astonished by her sensibility. Marjorie paints in poignant, vivid vignettes a portrait of Edinburgh at the turn of the century, giving back to us a time and place long gone. There is her mother’s bustling restaurant on The Mound, dancing classes, a garden lit by moonlight, the grandfather with a horse named Tarabahn. It’s a bitter-sweet memoir written by the Seventh Daughter who has acute, almost supernatural powers of observation and a pagan reverence for nature. Childhood’s Hill is in turn bitingly funny and tragic, innocent and utterly wise. In a review in The Scotsman, Susan Mansfield describes the memoir as ‘luminous, episodic, sensual, rather like memory itself.’
As Linen Press evolves, what do you see as the future for women’s publishing?
On my pessimistic days, I’d say we have a long way to go given the bias towards promoting and rewarding male writers. In the UK, 60% of books published are by women BUT:
- Prior to the Orange prize, 11% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize were women
- 38% of the authors shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in the past decade have been women
- 4% of authors who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature have been women
- 30% of the winners and 32% of those shortlisted for the Costa Novel of the Year in the past decade have been women
- 64 male versus 36 female authors make up the World Book Night picks of the last five years
- 25% of books reviewed by established national newspapers are by women.
Linen Press is now the only indie publisher of new women’s writing in the UK. Virago was founded in 1972 by Carmen Callil to publish mainly women writers – new and neglected – and with a strong feminist focus. It is now owned by Little Brown. The Women’s Press, my own role model, was established in 1978 and was hugely influential in the 80s bringing us Alice Walker, May Sarton, Janet Frame, Stevie Davies as well as minority writers. It is no longer functioning. Persephone reprints books already published.
The realisation that we are the only women’s press left standing makes us all the more determined to continue to support women writers in a turbulent world where women are still the designated minority gender and their experiences are often dismissed as irrelevant and inconsequential. We welcome with open arms established and new writers with something interesting, extraordinary, unusual and moving to say. We are looking for exceptionally fine writing that takes your breath away. We will continue to bring previously unacknowledged voices to the frontline where they belong.
You’ve had a great run of successes in award-nominations for a variety of genres and with a variety of different authors – how do you get your books noticed?
It’s very hard without the massive marketing budgets of the Big Five. We don’t have £300,000 to buy posters, adverts and a prime place on the tables in Waterstones and W H Smith. We can’t offer a 60% discount off the RRP. But this doesn’t stop us communicating on a more personal level. Over the years we’ve built a list of loyal reviewers and bloggers in print and online who are keen to read a new Linen Press publication. Maureen Freely’s Sailing Through Byzantium was reviewed by every National and listed by Peter Kemp as one of Sunday Times Books of the Year 2013. We have a beautiful website where books can be ordered with one click, a strong social media presence, and we rely on our loyal readers who value small indie presses who don’t dictate what we read and push their crowd pleasers. And we rely on our authors to attend events, give readings and help give their books the visibility they deserve. It’s all-out collaboration and teamwork – time-consuming but very rewarding.
You said: ‘I want to read beautifully crafted writing that speaks to women. I want to fall into a novel and not emerge until its ending. I want to gasp at sentences that defy literary gravity.’ If you had to direct readers towards one book you’ve published, AND one book published by any other small press publisher, that embody these qualities, which books would you choose and why?
My personal favourite is The Making Of Her by Susie Not-Bower but she writes about her novel here so I leave that to her.
My other choice is Dogwood which came in as an unsolicited submission from 27 year old Virginian writer, Lindsay Parnell. I knew by the end of the first page that here was a distinctive, utterly assured new voice. The novel is written in the pitch perfect dialect of the American South and tells the story of the compelling but ultimately destructive sisterhood between three girls, Harper, Caro and Collier, growing up in dirt-poor Virginia as they joy-ride their way through the thrills and falls of drugs and abuse. Dogwood is unflinching in its portrait of poverty and boredom but it is cut through with excitement, lyricism and tenderness. It’s an astonishing debut.
Heidi James, author of Wounding, writes: ‘Parnell’s work is that rare beast – tender and brutal, beautiful and raw. Her prose sings off the page, though it’s with the voice of a debauched choir boy.’
Joan Barfoot’s Gaining Ground published by The Women’s Press is my other choice. It has stayed with me since I first read it in 1979. A middle-aged woman walks out on her home, husband and children to live by herself in a hut in the woods. It is about her quest for self-identification, self-knowledge and self-sufficiency – a journey that involves shedding the past and the present and stripping away everything that she feels diminishes and disguises her as she searches for her true self. The novel is a feminist quest rather like Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing.
Finally, Lynn, you go into a cafe with a book to read: what’s the book and what do you order?
I’m taking A Sense Of An Ending by Julian Barnes to read while I drink some freshly squeezed orange juice.