42. Stet – Diana Athill
I’ve been savouring the all-too-few pages of Stet (2000) by Diana Athill, and now it’s going into my 50 Books You Must Read – and it was so good that I had to go and buy another copy to offer as a giveaway (to anywhere in the world.) Just pop your name in the comments, along with the author you most wish you’d been able to edit. (You can interpret that in a positive way – how wonderful to get to see their drafts! – or a negative way – my GOODNESS they needed editing!) I’ll do the draw next weekend on 20th April.
Right, now I’ll write my review and tell you why I think you should enter to win! I bought Stet a year ago, adding it to my little pile of unread Diana Athill memoirs, knowing that at some point I would read it and love it. What’s not to like about a memoir by one of the most famous editors in the world? I was saving it as a treat, when I saw that various bloggers were posting reviews, since the Slaves of Golconda were reading it (there’s a sampling of those reviews at the end of mine.) What better excuse to dig out my copy, and indulge?
Although Diana Athill now seems famously chiefly for being old (she is 95), she is also recognised as one of the country’s best editors, having worked as one for five decades under the auspices of André Deutsch. Her reason for writing Stet also explains it’s title, so I’ll hand over to Athill to explain:
Why am I going to write it? Not because I want to provide a history of British publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, but because I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too – they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in my squeaks “Oh no – let at least some of it be rescued!!”. It seems to be an instinctive twitch rather than a rational intention, but no less compelling for that. By a long-established printer’s convention, a copy-editor wanting to rescue a deletion puts a row of dots under it and writes ‘Stet’ (let it stand) in the margin. This book is an attempt to ‘Stet’ some part of my experience in its original form.
This explanation, though both moving and understandable, is also an example of the extraordinary modesty which Athill demonstrates. Not a false modesty, or even a polite modesty, but a genuine refusal to believe how brilliant she is. She occasionally quotes people’s praise of her – which is not (in this instance) the action of the immodest, but the grateful incredulity of the humble.
Stet is divided into two sections. The second, which I will come onto, looks in detail at her relationships with various authors whom she edited. The first deals with her career in publishing in a fairly fast-paced manner (she covers 50 years in 128 pages – that’s a few months per page, folks) and has a great deal of common sense to say about the practice of editing, as well as lovely gossip about what a controlling – though somehow lovable – monster André Deutsch was, and various illuminating revelations about how scattergun their policy for accepting submissions was in the early days. Basically, everything they liked was accepted – from cookbooks to travel books to experimental short stories to children’s books. Quite how they described their list, I can’t imagine.
Anybody interested in the process of how a book goes (or went) from a manuscript clutched in an author’s hand to a copy on Foyles’ shelves will inevitably find Stet interesting, but what carries it from being an interesting discussion of ‘an editor’s life’ (the subtitle) is Athill’s wisdom, warmth, and wit. As an example of the latter, here’s her brief account of working with an author on a book about Tahiti which was interesting but appallingly written:
I doubt if there was a sentence – certainly there was not a paragraph – that I did not alter and often have to retype, sending it chapter by chapter to the author for his approval which – although he was naturally grouchy – he always gave. I enjoyed the work. It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained (a good deal more satisfying than the minor tinkering involved when editing a competent writer). Soon after the book’s publication it was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement: an excellent book, said the reviewer, scholarly and full of fascinating detail, and beautifully written into the bargain. The author promptly sent me a clipping of this review, pinned to a short note. “How nice of him,” I thought, “he’s going to say thank you!” What he said in fact was: “You will observe the comment about the writing which confirms what i have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary.” When I had stopped laughing I accepted the message: an editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus). We must always remember that we are only midwives – if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.
(Which, of course, is what Athill has done.) Although Athill admits that editing the competent writer is a less interesting activity, what I admire about her editorial eye is the willingness, often expressed in Stet, to do minimal work. It takes a humble and wise editor to resist using her own taste as a benchmark, and looking, instead, for ways in which the author can express theirs.
The first half of Stet is filled with lively and observant accounts of her colleagues and friends, and is certainly very far from dry – but the second half is more overtly about the characters she met. I shan’t go into depth about this section; I’ll just let you know the people to whom chapters are devoted: Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, V.S. Naipaul, Molly Keane, Alfred Chester. I’ve only read two books by all these authors combined, but I still found her portraits touching, intelligent, and (above all) observant. The length of these sections, and the accounts she gives of these authors’ personal and professional lives, are perfectly judged.
Hopefully that is enough to tempt you to read Stet. I’ve barely covered the second half of it, but that means there is even more to discover for yourself! So… if you have been tempted, pop your name in the comments, and that author whom you wish you’d edited. Stat!
Others who got Stuck in this Book:
“Athill is that very rare thing, a shrewdly selfish spectator. She’s quite unlike anyone I’ve met before, either in person or on the page.” – Alex in Leeds
“I have this feeling that if you are lucky enough to be seated next to Athill at a dinner party, it would be an evening filled with sparkling conversation. Reading Stet is (almost) the next best thing.” – Danielle, A Work in Progress
“Athill has the gift of cutting through the complicated tangle to the simple heart of the issues that publishers face.” – Victoria, Tales From The Reading Room