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Stet: An Editor's Life
Synopses & Reviews
Diana Athill worked as an editor back in the days when publishing, conducted in a less businesslike manner than it is now, stemmed from the idealistic notion that through a small but high-class publishing firm that didn't need to make money, editors could enjoy the thrill of finding what seemed like exciting new writers whose work would be distributed to eager readers. Her book presents astute assessments of her company's authors and their work, along with attempts to find meaning in her own experiences.
The first half of Stet revolves about Diana's life in editing, a field that, as an educated young woman with no particular skills, she sort of "fell into." She counted herself lucky to be permitted to engage in helping André Deutsch establish and conduct his new publishing company just after World War II. In writing about Deutsch, her long-time friend and employer (as well as one-time lover), she makes his oddities and inconsistencies seem endearing as well as frustrating. Of course, as a woman she was expected to cater to him, and she did, suffering the usual discriminatory practices that women of her era lived with.
Those parts of the book in which Athill describes or implies the proper relationship of editor to author resonate within the heart of every experienced editor: Keep in mind that the author's voice must be retained; help the writer say exactly what he or she has tried to say but failed to make clear; act as both copy editor and general editor, correcting style, grammar, and punctuation as well as errors in fact, lapses in organization, weaknesses in plot and ideas, and problems in structure; make your corrections and suggestions with tact and consideration. All this still rings true today and remains crucial to editorial work.
Athill devotes the second half of the book to stories about her relationships with well-known authors like Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, and Mordecai Richler, revealing their foibles and describing the ways she helped them. Many of her analytical statements about these writers prove insightful; they help us understand why the writers wrote as they did. This section will prove of value to writers planning biographies of those authors as well as to instructors of college English courses who want to better understand how those authors' experiences shaped their lives and their books.
The day that a publishing firm forced Diana Athill out as an editor, she realized that she no longer possessed a beloved place to spend her time doing things she loved to do. Moreover, despite having had several affairs with men, when she left her job she lacked an intimate companion with whom to spend the rest of her life. Instead, she retained vivid memories of the writers she had generously shepherded through their careers.
But most of the writers themselves sound like persons we would never want to meet: whiny, dependent, searching desperately for appreciation, brow-beating Diana and their own friends and family members, and constantly giving in to habits that disrupted their ability to write people only a nanny-editor like Diana Athill could love. Moreover, she now discovers, to her dismay, that many of the writers her company published and thought to be wonderful weren't very good writers at all; their work simply fails to stand the test of time. Others, like V.S. Naipaul, wrote from such a narrow base (in his case, the effects of British imperialism) that their work proved less universal than once thought.
As part of her commentary on editing, Athill discusses censorship. I agree with her that books containing "bad words" aren't obscene. She believes that making those words "taboo" is "idiocy." Of course. But I think the world of publishing could employ a lot more restraint than it does. Printing in a book the words we wouldn't use in polite society, words we know will offend some readers' sensibilities, will always be a matter of taste and judgment, and I believe that whenever we touch the lives of others we bear the responsibility of making those contacts "civilized," in the British sense of the word.
My main disappointment with Stet has to do with the writing. Athill herself badly needs an editor. She constantly misplaces or omits required punctuation and misuses words, thus often forcing the reader to stop short, shift gears, and reverse speed to re-read a sentence for the possible intended import. She also very much over-uses dull and static verbs like is and was, sometimes writing it as many as a dozen times on a page. Of course, Athill admits forthrightly to never having been a good copy editor.
That said, it's untrue to say I gained nothing from her book. Besides appreciating her remarks on the way editing should be conducted, I enjoyed her frequently-clever turns of phrase ("Nick had an upper lip so stiff that it almost creaked") and her telling analyses of authors' personalities.
Most of all, I came away with great admiration for Athill as a person. Her kindness to her demanding authors is astonishing. Most of them desired, even needed, her personal attention and her intervention in the way they conducted their daily lives. She took care of them as if they were close friends or beloved family members, unselfishly distributing her own substance to people who should have considered her a colleague but instead made her into their mother.
I think the strongest epithet she ever used to describe an author who repaid her benevolence by acting mean and hateful was "tiresome" a typically British understatement. Indeed, Athill may have used up all her compassion and devotion on these (often-ungrateful) authors instead of employing it to build a personal relationship with someone who could become a lifelong companion for her. Authors filled her life as if they were family. Dorothy Jane Mills, BlueEar.com
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