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)


Stefanie said...

Loved your write up! It was an interesting book, wasn't it? She does mention late that she was never interested in being a director and that she supposes if she had been things might have gone differently, that she might have had a firmer hand in keeping Andre in check when it came to some things. I agree with your assessment that she was too much the genteel-but-impoverished Major's daughter. I was taken aback when she so blithely dismissed making so much less than Nick and how women in general made less than the men.

litlove said...

When Andre Deutsch was sold, she was in her 70s, which is perhaps not an age for going fiercely into battle with a bunch of accountants. And if she had been able to do so, I figure she would have been more of a Gorgon in daily life! But I completely agree that the Myra Hindley part was fascinating, as were all the accounts of the authors she knew especially well, for one reason or another.

litlove said...

When Andre Deutsch was sold, she was in her 70s, which is perhaps not an age for going fiercely into battle with a bunch of accountants. And if she had been able to do so, I figure she would have been more of a Gorgon in daily life! But I completely agree that the Myra Hindley part was fascinating, as were all the accounts of the authors she knew especially well, for one reason or another.

Rohan said...

I too found it ebbed and flowed somewhat, and though I found the anecdotes mostly interesting, I liked the bookish bits better than the gossipy parts. Her attitude about gender reminded me a bit of my grandmother, who also worked in publishing (though in a much humbler, more local vein). She always claimed to be "just Whistler's mother" -- but she also relished her ability to get men to cooperate with almost any project on her terms. She would never have considered herself a feminist, or have fought openly for equal rights or pay. And yet I learned a great deal from her example about how to be independent and refuse to live your life according to other people's standards. Self-deprecation perhaps had a key strategic role for women of that generation.