Liz Bolton commemorates Diana Athill OBE and revisits Stet, An Editor’s Life, published by Granta Books in 2000 and 2017, in paperback.
One of the most unflinching editors and writers in British publishing, Diana Athill, died this January aged 101.
In the year 2000 her book Stet, An Editor’s Life, was published by Granta. It is a fascinating, and sometimes laugh-out-loud, account of her fifty years in publishing as Founding Director of Andre Deutsch (with whom she once enjoyed a brief fling), and her consequent nurturing of literary icons such as Jack Kerouac and VS Naipaul – whom she disliked, particularly because of his treatment of his wife Pat. Among her many achievements (although she does not refer to them as achievements) was persuading the then alcoholic Jean Rhys to complete Wide Sargasso Sea.
Her working relationship with Andre was good natured and respectful though not always acquiescent. She recounts her “amused resignation” at discovering that a fellow editor, less able than herself, was paid more and treated better, purely based on gender. However, in her uncompromisingly honest recounting of the discovery, she says “I hadn’t just loved being an editor, I had also positively liked not being treated as the director I was supposed to be. […] I loathed and still loathe responsibility, am intensely reluctant to exert myself in any way that I don’t enjoy, and am bored by thinking about money (in spite of liking to spend it). So […] Andre took advantage of my feelings, it cannot be said that in relation to the job he did any violence to those feelings.”
It is apparent that she worked tirelessly on manuscripts, line by line. She was both perspicacious and analytical, always willing to see the best in the writing but rigorously adhering to the highest standards of copy editing and proof reading. On occasion she was forced to take a more involved role than she felt her editing warranted. One of her writers who “needed a lot of work done on his books” and goes on to describe them as lazy and needing “about one sentence in every three adjusted”. But ultimatley Diana felt “he was, in fact, right to trust me: but still I was slightly shocked at his doing so.”
An avid reader, Athill also appeared instinctive about what would be a publishing success. Norman Mailer’s expletive laden novel The Naked and the Dead was almost banned in Britain but established Andre Deutsch as a pioneering publisher to be reckoned with. The books that proved successes were the books that were liked by Athill and her colleagues; among the more “conspicuous” of their novelists were Margaret Atwood, Peter Benchley (author of Jaws amongst others), Marilyn French, Molly Keane, Timothy Mo, Philip Roth and John Updike. As Damien Barr (writer, columnist, playwright) says “It is easier to list who she didn’t edit rather than who she did”.
In her introduction to Stet, An Editor’s Life she explained the title: “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 […]”. She imagined that, when she died, the book would make her feel a little less dead if a few people read it. For wannabe writers, and for those who just plain love books, Stet, An Editor’s Life is required reading. It is a clear-sighted view of the publishing world as it was in the 20th Century and provides astute insights into a few of the very best novelists. Athill comes across as a passionate editor, a “beady eyed watcher” who had a talent for identifying and nurturing the very best writers, and for whom she cared deeply. Damien Barr says of her “She made the good better and the great greater.”
After writing Stet, An Editor’s Life Diana Athill went on to write a number of books recounting her life and her loves. In 2008 at the age of 90 she won the Costa Book Award for her memoir Somewhere Towards The End. In 2009 was awarded an OBE for services to literature.
The publishing world will miss her greatly. “As elegant and rigorous in person as on the page” says Sue Fletcher, former publisher at Hodder & Stoughton.