AGENDA ADDING A NEW WORD TO THE LANGUAGE
On the eve of Mslexia’s 20th birthday, founder and Editor Debbie Taylor takes a walk down memory lane
4 Mar/Apr/May 2019 mslexia
Ithink it’s fair to say that the launch of Mslexia did not go well. Things started to unravel when we were dumped by the PR company we’d hired to drum up some media interest. ‘We have conducted some research,’ said the head honcho, ‘and the name was not liked.’ Not liked? Why? ‘It was viewed as confusing, insulting to women writers, and offensive to the dyslexic community.’
‘But I’ve discussed it with the British Dyslexia Association and they had no objection.’ They’d laughed, in fact, enjoying the pun – and wished us well. ‘Nevertheless,’ he continued, ‘if you are not prepared to change the name, then we are not prepared to represent you.’
We stuck to our guns (obviously), but he was right in one sense: some people did find the name confusing. In the launch issue we printed a list of all the ‘msspellings’ we’d so far encountered, which included Myslexia (a hardy perennial), Mslezia, Malexia, Miss Lexir, Mizzlexia, Ms Lezia and the magnificently unpronounceable Mslszia.
The next PR company we approached was more enthusiastic, and had masses of confirmed press coverage lined up, plus an exclusive profile on Radio 4’s flagship arts programme Front Row, on the exact date of our launch: International Women’s Day, 8 March 1999.
But on 7 March 1999 two things happened to upset the PR applecart. First, iconic film director Stanley Kubrick died, which bumped us off Front Row completely. And the Times ran a sneering feature about the fledgling mag, calling it ‘a knitting circle masquerading as an Ann Summers party’ and quoting members of ‘the female literati’ who had allegedly taken against our name. One of the celebrity authors quoted subsequently complained to Times that the reporter had talked to her enthusiastically for half an hour, apparently just waiting to pounce on her one mildly negative comment – but the damage had been done. And major articles promised in other nationals were either pulled completely or reduced to brief diary pieces.
Falling dominoes Those two falling PR dominos set off a series of consequences that found me, a year later, at a meeting at Northern Arts being informed that Mslexia’s three-year funding agreement was being terminated and that we had to shut up shop.
Until then things had been going relatively smoothly. Northern Arts and Arts Council England had ponied up the launch funding. A raft of established authors – including Michèle Roberts, A L Kennedy, Val McDermid, Julia Darling, Nicci Gerrard, Jo Shapcott, Maggie Gee and Barbara Trapido – had agreed to contribute, for laughable payments, to a magazine they’d never heard of. True, one celebrity author I approached for an interview replied with a postcard that simply read: ‘If a writer feels the need for a magazine devoted to women writers, then she had better give up’. But she was outnumbered by outpourings of warmth from what felt like a welcoming community.
Looking back at the early years of Mslexia, there were so many things I did wrong. At our first board meeting, for example, I served champagne cocktails – but no report papers or management accounts. I didn’t even know what management accounts were. I just wanted to break the ice at this daunting gathering of six leading women from the arts and business community. (The first Chair of the board subsequently resigned, appalled at my lack of business savvy.)
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