A farewell to Carmen

Why will there be no more Carmen Callils?


This article is taken from the December/January 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Carmen Callil, acclaimed by her many obituarists as one of the greatest publishers of her day, died in mid-October at the age of 84. In fact, her “day” was rather longer ago than it may appear.

Although she continued to make the iron filings jump to her magnet’s call at the Virago Press, her mainstream career ended as far back as 1993 when she was relieved of her post as managing director of Chatto & Windus and given the much vaguer and necessarily short-term job of “editor at large”.

In fact, Carmen barely got away with it then

The Secret Author is, alas, too young to have witnessed Carmen in her coruscating early 1980s heyday, but he was a gratified spectator of her final Chatto years. The hectic schedule that demanded two PAs instead of the customary one; the colossal sums of money spent on tempting star authors away from rival firms or keeping home-raised talents sweet; the snubs dealt out to agents or critics who had annoyed her — all these contributed to the Carmen legend, as, to be fair, did her loyalty to writers she admired or underlings she wanted to see prosper.

Knowing a veteran author of hers to be hard-up, she once arrived at a party where she knew he would be present and handed the cheque for his next project over on the spot.

Several of Carmen’s obituarists were keen to frame her achievements in a modern context. No one, they declared, could get away now with the kind of stunts she pulled in the 1980s. In fact, Carmen barely got away with them then. The unearned advances racked up by writers for whom she had paid far too much money — highlights included the £250,000 expended on Timothy Mo’s An Insular Possession (1991) and the £600,000-plus laid out on Michael Holroyd’s multi-volume life of Shaw a few years previously — and the high-handed treatment of secretaries and assistants stored up trouble.

There was a famous incident sometime in the late 1980s when an angry blonde girl rushed up to her at a book-world party and yelled, “Remember me, Carmen? I used to be your secretary and you were absolutely foul and I just wanted you to know” — or words to that effect.

Carmen Callil in 1983

Meanwhile, Chatto’s outgoings had exceeded incomings to such a degree that by the early 1990s the firm — by this point a modestly-staffed imprint of the Random House satrapy — was supposedly losing its parent company £1,000 a day. A.S. Byatt might have won the Booker Prize with Possession (1990), Angela Carter might have become one of the most significant British woman writers of the whole of the 1980s, but their publisher had to go.

Why will there be no more Carmen Callils? One reason is that the part of publishing in which she made her name has become so well-tilled that there are very few crops left to be harvested from it.

This is the field of reprints and “lost classics”, which barely existed when Virago set up shop in the early 1970s reissuing Willa Cather, Mrs Oliphant and Rosamond Lehmann but now shoots out hundreds of items a year.

Another reason is that a safely corporatised industry doesn’t like mavericks, who upset apple carts, spend too much money and tend to be answerable only to themselves. Much safer to employ some meek-mannered stooge happy to cancel a contract at the merest hint of trouble.

The Secret Author earnestly hopes there is one out there somewhere

As for Carmen’s way with her secretarial staff, no 21st century human resources department would put up with it for five minutes. Then there is the unquestionable fact that publishing in those days seemed much more conducive to the emergence of people like Chatto’s ebullient ’80s-era MD.

It was smaller scale, less prudently financed, politer and more deferential, which meant that people who threw their weight about in it tended to be tolerated and conciliated in a way that would be impossible in the modern-day landscape of Little, Brown, Pan Macmillan and Penguin Random House (in which the Chatto imprint survives), where there is very little autonomy and the first law of publishing is: thou shalt not give offence.

The contemporary Carmen — if such a person exists — will not be found in any firm with a staff of more than twenty people. He, or she, will be a self-willed opportunist, prepared to take on books that other firms don’t dare to touch and authors that the big companies prefer to steer clear of.

Above all, they will have decided to go into publishing not because they want to make money out of it, but because there are certain books that they yearn to see in print on the grounds that life generally, if only for a handful of people, will be better if they are.

The Secret Author can’t actually locate such an exemplar, but he earnestly hopes there is one out there somewhere. Meanwhile, he hopes that some patient and unshockable biographer has already set to work on Carmen’s life and times.

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