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.’
Stet; 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.