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Stet: An Editor's Life Paperback – 31 Jan 2002
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Diana Athill was born in 1917 and brought up as part of the “county” set in Norfolk; she went to Oxford, and spent the war in the BBC – a job she got through a personal contact in its recruitment office; class was as powerful then as now. Disappointed in love, she fell into a series of relationships, one with a young refugee met at a party. (“He sat on the floor and sang ‘The Foggy Fogy Dew’, which was unexpected in a Hungarian.”) This was André Deutsch. The affair did not last long; the friendship, however, did and at the end of the war he asked her to join him in the publishing company he was founding. She was to work as an editor for the next 50 years, all but the last few with Deutsch himself. She says little in this book of her personal life, but she has written of that elsewhere. Stet – the word is a proofreader’s instruction, used to cancel a correction – is about Athill’s life in publishing.
The book is in two pretty much equal parts. The first is a narrative account of her career, mostly with Deutsch. The second recalls her work with a series of writers, the best-known of which are Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul; the others – Alfred Chester, Molly Keane, and one or two more – are no longer household names, if they ever were.
The first part of the book is a fascinating picture of postwar publishing in all its amateurish glory. When André Deutsch is founded in the 1950s, it works out of a converted house; books are dispatched from a packing bench that is a plank over the bath. This doesn’t surprise me; my first job, in 1974, was in publishing, and I sometimes ran the packing bench. It hadn’t changed much. But there is nothing amateur about Athill’s shrewd insight book buyers: “There are those who buy because they love books and what they can get from them, and those to whom books are one form of entertainment among several. The first group, which is by far the smaller, will go on reading... The second group has to be courted.” In Athill’s view, by the 1980s the second group had been seduced away by more visual media, leaving little space for literary publishing. She may have been right – then. But electronic publishing has now made books good value again, at least when sold by independents or small publishers whose overheads are low. So that second audience is being reclaimed (albeit mainly with genre books). Athill retired in the 1990s but still does the odd article and review, and one wonders what she thinks of this. She says little about technological change in general, although photosetting and on-screen page design arrived in her time.
When it comes to editing, though, Athill clearly had rigorous judgement. If a book didn’t quite work she didn’t want it, whoever had written it, and she rejected one of Philip Roth’s – a decision that caused her some pain later, but was surely right at the time. She had felt that he was writing about a different type of character than usual simply to prove that he could; and it did not ring true.
This is, in fact, the key to the second half of Stet. Athill has chosen to depict, not the writers with the highest profiles today, but those about whom she feels she has something to say. The result is a series of character sketches that do ring true, and draw you in whether you are interested in the writer or not. V.S. Naipaul is the only modern “superstar”. Of the others, I had heard of Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, but knew very little about them; I knew nothing of Alfred Chester at all. But I was fascinated. Both these, and the other, sketches suggest that Athill was not just a good editor; she was a generous friend to her writers as well. (And to Deutsch himself, who could clearly be a pain in the arse.)
Of these sketches, it is that of Jean Rhys that stands out. “No-one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life,” writes Athill, “but no-one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.” The later stages of Rhys’s life and the mess she had made of it, and her struggle with alcohol, are there – but so is her gift as a writer, and the strange early life that Athill felt explained much about her. The thumbnail sketch of V.S. Naipaul, too, is vivid, with a shrewd insight: that those whose cultural or national background is unclear must define themselves, and the personal resources needed for this can be great. They are not always there. As someone who has spent much of their life in an international milieu (in my case international development), I understand this all too well.
I am glad I read this again. Athill is, to be sure, a member of a privileged group – she uses the word caste – with an iron grip on the publishing world; but she knows that. This caste was “the mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people [who] loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect... our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste.” She puts this in the past tense but one wonders if that caste and its prejudices have really quite gone yet. However, Athill’s judgement as an editor clearly transcends them. So does her empathetic and subtle understanding of those she met.
This is a charming book.
Athill is a candid, empathetic, and witty observer of herself, her surroundings, and the people (many of them quite driven and some rather loony) with whom she worked as an editor for Andre Deutsch in London for 50 years. In Stet, Athill tells their stories. And, as befits a professional editor, she tells them with wonderful clarity and fluidity.
As Athill's sublime writing carries us along through her work and travels, we learn about London during and after World War II, about the evolution of the publishing business and relationships between writers and editors, about the lives and idiosyncrasies of writers famous and not so famous, and, surprisingly, about the poor and wildly beautiful island of Dominica. All these stories are leavened with Athill's lucid reflections on work, sexuality, feminism, social mores and peccadilloes, and religion and spirituality.