Sunday, March 31, 2013

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.’

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.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Shrewdly Selfish Spectator In The Publishing World

Stet, sometimes published as Stet:An Editor's Life, is Diana Athill's fourth volume of memoir (she's published six in total) and the one specifically dealing with her career in the London publishing world.

Born in 1917 and sucked into the published trade after a disastorous love affair in the 1940s, Athill quickly found herself in a post-war London that was shaking off paper rationing and the last vestiges of British Empire and reforming itself into a cultural melting pot. She soon after became a founding director of the publishing house André Deutsch and went on to be editor there for over 45 years. In her time she helped edit and publish authors such as V S Naipaul, Philip Roth, Mavis Gallant, Jean Rhys, Laurie Lee, Simone de Beauvoir, Molly Keane, Stevie Smith, Brian Moore, Margaret Atwood, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer and John Updike.

The publication of Stet in 2000 resulted in an unexpected burst of fame, something she appears to have found rather baffling since she was in her eighties at the time and was essentially writing partly for pleasure and partly as a retirement plan (those in her family tend to enjoy long lives).

But her book is nothing like you might expect from that brief summary.

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. Shrewd enough to be astonishingly cool when assessing those she met during her career as an editor. Selfish enough to have no qualms about dallying with married men or reading private diaries when left lying open in her house. An inquisitive spectator with a beady eye for office drama and the specifics of the publishing world rather than a chronicler of the world at large.

This gives the book a very unusual feel. You are getting a very candid, unique perspective on life in the chaotic offices of André Deutsch Limited - but you're only seeing what Athill herself was interested in.

The highlights are very much worth dipping into the book to find. Her account of meeting Myra Hindley and talking with her for an hour about the possible publication of her book is one of almost preternatural insight. Athill, shrewd and observant as she can be when her curiosity is aroused, came to this conclusion after the prison visit:

'By the law of our land Myra Hindley had been condemned to live with what she had done, and she had contrived for herself a probably precarious way of doing so: admitting guilt, but blurring it by exaggerating her youth at the time and keeping the extent to which he had been influenced by, and eventually frightened by, Brady to the fore. What would society gain if she were made to live through those murder again as the sane adult she had in fact been, and ended by saying 'I ought to be dead' or by breaking down completely which seemed to me the likely conclusion? Nothing. So if I enabled her to write the proposed book, and Andre Deutsch Limited published it, we would simply be trading in the pornography of evil, like the gutter press we despised. No, it could not be done.'
(Chapter 10)

Or to put it far more crudely, Athill could spot the flaws in Hindley's narrative but realised just how much psychological damage it might do her to pull on that loose thread.

Another highlight is her wicked assessment of V S Naipaul's rather uppity demeanour and the genuine way in which she recounts feeling sorry for his wife - reminding herself on bad days that it could be worse, she could be married to him...

Athill is famous for saying her books were never structured or planned, she just wrote them as they came to her and Stet feels very much like it came about with a tidal-like rise and fall. So to balance the highs of hearing her talk about 're-discovering' Molly Keane and Jean Rhys, both women late in their life and in great need of the boost given by being re-published, there are lows that come about because her attention was elsewhere or she didn't assert herself.

It makes her testimony about the sale of André Deutsch in the 1980s much less interesting and there is a sense throughout that, when it counted, she just wasn't present in the boardroom and preferred gossiping over lunch to asking difficult questions about the company's direction.

Perhaps some of this feeling comes from the fact that Athill is trying to cram over fifty years of professional experience into a book of just 300 or so pages. But a lot of it is due to Athill's personality:

'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 by thinking about money (in spite of liking to spend it).'
(Chapter 7)

This attitude appears to have led to Athill being treated by Deutsch (and others in the company) as a secretary with privileges, which she apparently was perfectly happy with. It made for hard reading as an equalitist when she frankly acknowledged that earning just a fraction of the salary paid to her male colleague, Nick, and being pushed into choosing a small office or being forced to share a normal sized one left her feeling 'less resentment than amused resignation'.

The reality is that her youthful conditioning as a genteel-but-impoverished Major's daughter left her with a need to please and pacify the men in her life. Perhaps this too is why she didn't like to think to hard about money and makes her self-deprecate every time she talks about her work as a career. When she says something like:

'I know that I have sometimes been described a 'one of the best editors in London', and I can't deny that it has given me pleasure; but I also know how little I had to do to earn this reputation beyond routine work and being agreeable to interesting people.'
(Chapter on Molly Keane)

I know that part of that is shrewd assessment and part of it must be Little Wife Syndrome kicking in. As I said, it's a peculiar combination.

Overall I can't help but recommend it as a fascinating example of biography with snippets about working with Elizabeth David on the newly launched cookery book line, the story of how they lost Roth as an author and how sad she was to lose Brian Moore as a friend. It would be dishonest though to not acknowledge that it suffers somewhat from the ebbing and flowing and I was left with a nagging suspicion that, though she cared deeply about her authors, it wasn't a love of books that got Athill out of bed in the morning.

(Cross-posted to my book review blog, Alex in Leeds)

Stet, Or, a Dream of a Job

Diana Athill, still alive and feisty at the age of ninety-five, wrote her memoir Stet: An Editor's Life while in her eighties. She has a strong and sassy voice that at first came off as grumpy which made me worry a little until I got to know her better. By the end of the book I was wishing we were friends so I could call her up for a lunch date.

Stet is a copy-editing term meaning "let it stand." Athill's memoir, Stet is broken into two parts. The first half is about how she came to be a founding editor of Andre Deutsch publishing. The second half is stories and reminiscence about a few authors who had a big impact on her. And what a fun ride the book is. Athill had the luck and pleasure to work in publishing from just after WWII until the mid 1980s. And all my romantic notions about what it is like to work for an important publisher, she lived them. Poorly paid, cramped offices, personalities to deal with (both authors and coworkers), lots to learn from some big mistakes, all made up for by meeting interesting people, the intellectual stimulation, and of course the books.

Throughout the book Athill drops the pearls of her editing experience. At one point she is talking about suggesting changes to the authors of their work and how most of the time authors were grateful and accepting of her suggestions. And then she says something really interesting:
mostly, if what is said by an attentive reader makes sense, the writer is pleased to comply. Writers don't encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives editors a good start with them.
I had never thought about how infrequently writers encounter attentive readers before. I now feel a little guilty for not always giving a book my full attention.

I had a good chuckle when Athill talks about the "pull of mystification" as in when you read a book and are totally baffled by it to the point of believing that it isn't the book that is the problem but you the reader and so you end up thinking the book is brilliant because you don't understand it. Athill has fallen prey to it but quickly learned how to suss it out. Nonetheless, she says, a good deal of junk masquerading as art gets published that way.

While an editor, Athill had two ground rules, don't over-tinker with an author's manuscript and never make changes the author does not agree to. Simple but not always easy.

The second half of the book is fun and dangerous. Fun because you get the inside scoop on what it was like to work with the likes of Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul. Dangerous because she title drops and gushes like crazy about books she has especially loved. Mount TBR grew several feet taller! This is not a deep thinker of a book but it is lots of fun.

Cross-posted at So Many Books