Stet: An Editor’s Life is yet another book that’s been in my TBR for some time. I don’t read a lot of memoirs or biographies, but as a reader, I find the work of editors fascinating. These days, I also find employment as a proofreader for advertising, so the topic is even more of interest to me than before.
Diana Athill is known as one of the great British editors of the 20th century. She worked with writers such as John Updike, V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Margaret Atwood (!), Jack Kerouac, and Mordecai Richler, to name a few. The publishing firm she helped found, André Deutsch, also published blockbusters like Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The firm no longer exists, but Athill was there from its inception through its heyday, and much of her memoir centers on it.
Athill writes in a breezy, confident manner, with just the right economy of thought and wit. More than half the book is given to how she found her profession and helped establish André Deutsch, and is peppered with anecdotes about love affairs (without name dropping), writers and industry insiders, travel, and the day-to-day of the publishing world from roughly the 1950s through the early 1980s (she retired in her 70s after 50 years in publishing).
One the most important things you learn about Athill is that she genuinely loved her job as an editor. Really loved it. Which is a good thing, because it sounds like she made a pittance considering the glamour we (or perhaps just I) associate with working with such literary luminaries. Her sentiments about earnings, money, career building, and the value of meaningful work are surprisingly candid and something that—dare I say—I can really relate to:
Men had been found more likely to aim for promotion and increased pay, women to aim for work they would enjoy and the satisfaction of doing it well…I hadn’t just loved being an editor, I had also positively liked not being treated as the director I was supposed to be. This was because, as I have explained, I loathed and still loathe responsibility, am intensely reluctant to exert myself in any way I don’t enjoy, and am bored thinking about money (in spite of liking to spend it).
The second half of the book is divided into chapters discussing various writers. I was a bit disappointed that some of them, such as John Updike, were omitted (he was just too nice, normal, and professional to dish on), and she never mentioned Margaret Atwood. Some of the longest and more interesting chapters are on Jean Rhys, who sounds like a sad, super-sensitive soul, and V. S. Naipaul, a miserable, unpleasant man. I’ve not read either, though I’ve had books by both of them in my TBR for some time.
Here is a chunk that says as much about Athill’s intellectual finesse as Naipaul’s personality:
In all moral qualities the line between the desirable and the deplorable is imprecise – between tolerance and lack of discrimination, prudence and cowardice, generosity and extravagance – so it is not easy to see where a man’s proper sense of his own self-worth turns into more or less pompous self-importance.
I also found this chapter really fascinating after having read The White Woman on the Green Bicycle by Monique Roffey. Naipaul was from Trinidad (he loathed his home country), and Athill apparently visited on at least a couple of occasions. She met Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, and discusses her impressions of some of the politics of the islands. I wonder if she’s read Roffey?
Wiki tells me that Athill is still alive and kicking at the grand old age of 98. I suggest that strong senses of self-determination and awareness are the magic elixir for attaining such longevity. Athill has written other memoirs since she retired from publishing. I really look forward to reading them, too. You know that dinner party question: if you could invite 5 (or 10 or whatever) famous people from history to dinner, who would it be? Athill is definitely on my invitation list.
Stet: A Memoir
Copyright 2000 Diana Athill
First published in Great Britain 2000 by Granta
Books mentioned to remember:
Judith Hearne (or The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne in US) by Brian Moore
Good Behavior by Molly Keane
Into That Darkness by Gitta Sereny