An Editor’s Life

People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books, are of two kinds. 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, if not for ever, then for as long as one can foresee. The second group has to be courted. It is the second which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers’ headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting.’


stetStet; An Editor’s Life, Diana Athill’s memoir of fifty years as an editor of André Deutsch publishing is written in a deceptively simple style, as if the author were chatting to the reader over a cup of tea. Or at least, Athill has the gift of cutting through the complicated tangle to the simple heart of the issues that publishers face. Her insights seem perfectly applicable to the current market as to the heyday of publishing, the sixties to the eighties, when she was in the thick of it all. Athill began working in publishing after the war. She had met André Deutsch and had a brief affair with him that left them as friends and life-long colleagues. She was with him through two firms, the first being, of course, the one that Deutsch made the most naïve mistakes with, as a man whose hunger for publishing good books far outstripped his shrewd intelligence for business. Like most entrepreneurs, Deutsch had terrific energy but erratic aim for it, not to mention an inability to admit it when he was wrong. But the second time round he had more money and more experience; André Deutsch the company was born and became one of the major literary houses, publishing such luminaries as Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Norman Mailer, Jack Kerouac, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant, Stevie Smith, Elizabeth Jennings, Laurie Lee, Molly Keane and Gitta Sereny, until old age, battle fatigue and changing times brought about its downfall. As Athill pithily describes it: ‘Although André’s chief instrument for office management was always, from 1946 to 1984, the threatening of Doom, he was slow to recognize its actual coming.’ I have to wonder how many publishers that description applies to in the current climate?

This is a gentle, funny, humane book that draws the reader easily into the centre of the publishing world. But for me, I felt it was mostly a book about friendship, the particular sort of friendship that develops over a long working relationship that has weathered all sorts of ups and downs, and in which Diana Athill seems exceptionally experienced. The first half of the book is an account of the life of an editor from after the war to the moment when publishing became the concern of multimillion dollar corporations, the second half focuses in on her relationships with particular authors. In both sections, the question is what Diana Athill can usefully do for those around her. There are fascinating accounts in the first section of the experiences she has helping Gitta Sereny to put together her landmark account of Franz Stangl, the Commandant of a Nazi extermination camp, and of interviewing the Moors murderer, Myra Hindley in prison and deciding against commissioning her memoirs. In both cases, the issue is writing about evil. The care and support that Athill gives to Sereny – who is in dire need of it – in order to prevent her being swamped by the subject matter is a mirror image of her refusal to take on what must surely have been a highly commercial prospect in Myra Hindley. But she did not think that Hindley’s mental state would survive coming honestly face to face with what she had done. Would an editor today make the same decision? I’d hope so, but I’m not sure.

In the second part the issue of editorial friendship becomes even clearer. It’s a highly particular relationship, we find, between an editor and a writer. As Athill runs around caring for an ill, disturbed and poverty-stricked Jean Rhys (‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.’), or swallows her joy at having the somewhat egotistical V. S. Naipaul off her hands, only to find him desperate to return to André Deutsch, or sitting down to a candlelit dinner in a slummy New York apartment with the clearly bonkers but brilliant Alfred Chester, it seems that being an editor means taking the support, care and loyalty towards a difficult individual beyond the normal bounds. Editors love the part of writers, greater often than the base self, that creates books, and so they find that extra bit of compassion needed to deal with the rest of them. But Athill is no saint – she’s perfectly human and disconcertingly honest. She is upset by Brian Moore’s leaving his first wife, Jackie, whom she likes, and she lacks the courage to deal with Alfred Chester’s slide into what is probably paranoid schizophrenia. But when you read about the things she does do for her writers, I felt, at least, that she deserved to want well shot of them from time to time.

By the end of the book, I had grown immensely fond of Diana Athill’s attitude towards life, her conviction that no matter what happened (and she had had her share of sadness and frustration) it was worth living, her sensible pragmatism, her down-to-earth humility, her clear-sighted sense of humour. I very badly wanted to adopt her as a grandmother. Whilst there may be no scientific evidence that reading a lot of books makes you a better person, Stet; An Editor’s Life seems to provide ample anecdotal evidence that it does.




21 thoughts on “An Editor’s Life

      • And now I’ve read both book and your review! (and linked to it in the review I’ll have up on Monday morning.) What a lovely blog post, Victoria, and what a brilliant final line!

        I adored Stet, and have not got four or five other Athill memoirs on my shelves.

  1. Oh how lovely! I love hearing about jobs that are not my job (even when they are really quite similar to mine). This sounds like an amazing book, and I love the quote about Jean Rhys who I secretly don’t want to read because I like Mr. Rochester and will not be argued out of loving Mr. Rochester.

    • There’s no reason to have your faith in Mr Rochester troubled – Rhys wrote at least three other books, I’m pretty sure, so you can give Wide Sargasso Sea a miss! This is a very fun book, and if you happened to work in publishing, then it would have masses of resonance. I love the way she is so clear and straight about publishing and it’s realities; I felt she was extremely clear sighted about it all. Would love to know what you think of this one.

  2. I really liked her too and thought she was just the sort of person I’d enjoy having as a colleague as she seemed to care about her work but have a realistic attitude about slip-ups, which is essential for editors! It also made me see that one of the benefits of magazine editing is that we don’t have long-term relationships with authors, so there’s less need for the sort of care-taking Athill does. I don’t know that I would have had her patience.

    • I know, her patience was extraordinary! I don’t think I could have managed those authors the way she did, and I think of myself as reasonably patient with others. I’m so glad you enjoyed it – you’d be the first to know if she wasn’t talking good sense!

  3. Congrats on your post being featured on ‘Freshly Pressed’. Which was it? This one? This book sounds like an inspiring read… I’m particularly attracted to ‘deceptively simple’ style of writing and classy book covers. Thanks for your interesting review, litlove.

    • Arti, no the post was the one entitled On Being Stalked, and it was about James Lasdun’s book, Give Me Everything You Have. This book is completely different! And very charming and engaging and fascinating. Diana Athill came across as such a nice woman, I’m sure you’d like this if you read it.

  4. I remember reading this when it first came out and I was an editor at a small independent publisher’s. It’s such a good book (and sort of a good primer for how to be a good editor), I want to reread it now! And many aspects of publishing may have changed but that central relationship between editor and author has surely not (although it might be shorter, authors move around more than they used to do).

    • Helen, I had no idea you’d been an editor! I’m so glad you enjoyed this when you read it, and I quite agree it would be a perfect primer for someone new to the job. Hearing about the authors she had to deal with, it might be a blessing in disguise if they move around a bit more!

  5. I wasn’t able to find a copy of Stet (it isn’t surprising our library system wouldn’t have it), but it did have Somewhere Toward The End, which I had hoped to love – but didn’t. I promise to read Stet when and if I can find a copy – and do it with an open mind.

    • Well that’s as much as any writer can ask of a reader! I haven’t read Somewhere Toward The End although I’m sure I own a copy. I’ll have to give it a go and see if – or at least how – it’s different to this one. But not every author suits, and if you don’t love this one, it’s quite okay!

  6. The relationship between editor and author is intimate indeed…they see us naked in ways no one else ever will and they have to handle that moment with tact and grace, yet firmly enough to get our very best work out of us, even when we think that’s going to be impossible. My newest book needed significant revisions and I was quite fearful it would not be possible. Writers have to place such trust in their editors — and they place such faith in us. It is a relationship like no other, and very private. Readers have no idea!

    • I’m so glad to hear you’ve been writing a new book. When will it be coming out? And I hear you about being naked and vulnerable in front of an editor. I can imagine it very clearly! How wonderful, though, to have someone who really understands your work and is willing to work alongside you to get it right. That must be very satisfying at times (and probably extremely frustrating at others!).

  7. I’ve just read Danielle’s review of this and your two reviews complement each other nicely. It sounds like a wonderful book. I like what you write about the book being on friendship too.
    She sounds like such a great woman. I seem to remember you liked other books by her as well. I’ve got two but I’d love to read this as well.

    • Danielle and I felt very similarly about this one (not unusual – I know her tastes are very close to mine!). I really did enjoy it; it’s very laid back and very lucid and honest and engaging. If you like the sort of gossip about unusual people that is never unkind, then you’ll like this one. I’d love to know what you make of it.

  8. Hi there! You should definitely check out Athill’s other autobiographical books. I’m especially fond of Instead of a Letter and Yesterday Morning (and with titles like that, who wouldn’t!). They offer the same chatty, intimate, honest voice and such beautiful stories. There’s a little bit of overlap between the different books but that’s part of the charm, it’s like visiting a grandmother who can’t help but repeat herself a little. Happy reading!

    • Ha, I love the image of the grandmother who’s chatty and charming and repeats herself occasionally. I can’t help but feel that Athill must actually BE like that! I loved this one and would very much like to read more of her writing. Thank you for the recommendations!

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