Monday, 15 April 2013

Stet - Diana Athill (and a giveaway)

42. Stet - Diana Athill

I've been savouring the all-too-few pages of Stet (2000) by Diana Athill, and now it's going into my 50 Books You Must Read - and it was so good that I had to go and buy another copy to offer as a giveaway (to anywhere in the world.) Just pop your name in the comments, along with the author you most wish you'd been able to edit. (You can interpret that in a positive way - how wonderful to get to see their drafts! - or a negative way - my GOODNESS they needed editing!)  I'll do the draw next weekend on 20th April.

Right, now I'll write my review and tell you why I think you should enter to win! I bought Stet a year ago, adding it to my little pile of unread Diana Athill memoirs, knowing that at some point I would read it and love it.  What's not to like about a memoir by one of the most famous editors in the world?  I was saving it as a treat, when I saw that various bloggers were posting reviews, since the Slaves of Golconda were reading it (there's a sampling of those reviews at the end of mine.)  What better excuse to dig out my copy, and indulge?

Although Diana Athill now seems famously chiefly for being old (she is 95), she is also recognised as one of the country's best editors, having worked as one for five decades under the auspices of André Deutsch.  Her reason for writing Stet also explains it's title, so I'll hand over to Athill to explain:
Why am I going to write it?  Not because I want to provide a history of British publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, but because I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too - they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in my squeaks "Oh no - let at least some of it be rescued!!".  It seems to be an instinctive twitch rather than a rational intention, but no less compelling for that.  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.
This explanation, though both moving and understandable, is also an example of the extraordinary modesty which Athill demonstrates.  Not a false modesty, or even a polite modesty, but a genuine refusal to believe how brilliant she is.  She occasionally quotes people's praise of her - which is not (in this instance) the action of the immodest, but the grateful incredulity of the humble.

Stet is divided into two sections.  The second, which I will come onto, looks in detail at her relationships with various authors whom she edited.  The first deals with her career in publishing in a fairly fast-paced manner (she covers 50 years in 128 pages - that's a few months per page, folks) and has a great deal of common sense to say about the practice of editing, as well as lovely gossip about what a controlling - though somehow lovable - monster André Deutsch was, and various illuminating revelations about how scattergun their policy for accepting submissions was in the early days.  Basically, everything they liked was accepted - from cookbooks to travel books to experimental short stories to children's books.  Quite how they described their list, I can't imagine.

Anybody interested in the process of how a book goes (or went) from a manuscript clutched in an author's hand to a copy on Foyles' shelves will inevitably find Stet interesting, but what carries it from being an interesting discussion of 'an editor's life' (the subtitle) is Athill's wisdom, warmth, and wit.  As an example of the latter, here's her brief account of working with an author on a book about Tahiti which was interesting but appallingly written:
I doubt if there was a sentence - certainly there was not a paragraph - that I did not alter and often have to retype, sending it chapter by chapter to the author for his approval which - although he was naturally grouchy - he always gave.  I enjoyed the work.  It was like removing layers of crumpled brown paper from an awkwardly shaped parcel, and revealing the attractive present which it contained (a good deal more satisfying than the minor tinkering involved when editing a competent writer).  Soon after the book's publication it was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement: an excellent book, said the reviewer, scholarly and full of fascinating detail, and beautifully written into the bargain.  The author promptly sent me a clipping of this review, pinned to a short note.  "How nice of him," I thought, "he's going to say thank you!"  What he said in fact was: "You will observe the comment about the writing which confirms what i have thought all along, that none of that fuss about it was necessary."  When I had stopped laughing I accepted the message: an editor must never expect thanks (sometimes they come, but they must always be seen as a bonus).  We must always remember that we are only midwives - if we want praise for progeny we must give birth to our own.
(Which, of course, is what Athill has done.)  Although Athill admits that editing the competent writer is a less interesting activity, what I admire about her editorial eye is the willingness, often expressed in Stet, to do minimal work.  It takes a humble and wise editor to resist using her own taste as a benchmark, and looking, instead, for ways in which the author can express theirs.

The first half of Stet is filled with lively and observant accounts of her colleagues and friends, and is certainly very far from dry - but the second half is more overtly about the characters she met.  I shan't go into depth about this section; I'll just let you know the people to whom chapters are devoted: Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, V.S. Naipaul, Molly Keane, Alfred Chester.  I've only read two books by all these authors combined, but I still found her portraits touching, intelligent, and (above all) observant.  The length of these sections, and the accounts she gives of these authors' personal and professional lives, are perfectly judged.

Hopefully that is enough to tempt you to read Stet.  I've barely covered the second half of it, but that means there is even more to discover for yourself!  So... if you have been tempted, pop your name in the comments, and that author whom you wish you'd edited. Stat!

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"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." - Alex in Leeds

"I have this feeling that if you are lucky enough to be seated next to Athill at a dinner party, it would be an evening filled with sparkling conversation.  Reading Stet is (almost) the next best thing." - Danielle, A Work in Progress

"Athill has the gift of cutting through the complicated tangle to the simple heart of the issues that publishers face." - Victoria, Tales From The Reading Room


49 comments:

  1. I was just looking (without much hope) for anything by her this weekend - so I was very happy to see this giveaway, and to put my name in. As for who I'd most like to have edited, I think I'll go with Dorothy Dunnett, because her books are so brilliant, and I don't think she needed much editing - but I'd have gotten my hands on them first, as well as ample opportunity for lots of chats & meetings.

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    1. We're so lucky here that the £2 bookshop in Oxford has so much by her - I got a gorgeous collection of her letters there the other day.

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  2. I won't enter the draw (being family and all) but I must throw in my editing gripe - CS Lewis 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' - just to remove the second reference to the danger to children of clambering into a wardrobe. It never ceases to annoy me and probably irritates children to the extent that it encouraages them to have a try. Maybe that is why my 'Open Gardens' effort all those years ago was so successful - entering my 'Narnia' garden through a wardrobe attracted huge numbers of adults and children (although the 'huge' lady who got stuck halfway did create the need for some repairs...) Happy days!

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    1. Haha! Yes, maybe! It never really seemed that dangerous to me, but I guess old-style wardrobes were more dangerous...

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  3. While training to be an editor, we were asked to write a rejection letter to an author of our choice. While most of my colleagues made up imaginary authors and wrote polite rejection letters, I fancied myself as an editor of Faber and Faber, and wrote a rejection letter to Kazuo Ishiguro. I was disappointed with the ending of his book 'When We Were Orphans' that I was reading at that time; and in my letter, it was that precise book that I had turned down, although wishing that he would consider "us" for his next book. Although that letter never actually reached Ishiguro, I have since wanted to edit his novels. :)

    During our course, we often discussed about 'Stet'. The idea of the three dots used in the manuscript to save something which the editor has deleted by mistake, used as the title of a book by an editor reminiscencing her life, struck as marvellous, and a tad poignant.

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    1. What an interesting exercise that sounds! I wonder whose book I would reject...

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  4. Hi...would love to read this....and my fingers itch when I read a line of dialogue that ends with : she shrieked! So many well known crime writers succumb to this. I want to say: let your writing and the dialogue convey the emotion rather than this blunt instruction to me as to what is happening. Ah well...

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    1. At school they taught us never to use 'he said', and since we've learnt never to use anything else! So often the alternatives are weak.

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  5. This has been on my wish list ever since it came out and there were so many interviews around it. Then the publicity died down and I'm afraid to say I forgot about it. As to who I would most like to have edited, without a doubt (having just spent an hour labouring over various editors attempts to make sense of parts of 'All's Well That Ends Well') that would be Shakespeare at the time he was writing. And then standing over the compositors of the First Folio to make sure they got the definitive version right. It would have saved so much trouble and so many arguments.

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    1. I do hope you manage to get a copy of it! And I love the idea of being the editor of Shakespeare and of the First Folio - although generations of critics and scholars would be out of a job if someone had ;)

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  6. As one who wrote and edited a couple of in-house publications (and is about to turn 73), I can relate to the feeling expressed in Stet:

    I shall not be alive for much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too - they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in my squeaks "Oh no - let at least some of it be rescued!!".

    As an American editor, however, I would have to delete that final period that falls outside the quotation marks and add a comma after the word squeaks. I would love to read this book, thinking all the while about what that "swipe of the great eraser" will take from the world.

    Hmm, I'd like to edit Jodi Picoult, not expecting much -- if anything -- to needing to be changed (maybe an occasional typo?), but so I'd have the opportunity to discuss her work with her.

    On the other hand, I just edited Diana Athill herself, deleting a period and adding a comma. Maybe I should have chosen her as the one I'd edit. Ha!

    emerging.paradigm AT yahoo.com

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    1. I do hate that punctuation practice, in/out of brackets! I didn't realise that was a US/UK distinction.

      I like that Diana Athill believed she didn't have many more years, and that was 12 years ago :)

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  7. The book sound wonderful :) Thanks for making the giveaway international. I would have liked to edit Stella Gibbons' work, which I have loved since I read 'Cold Comfort Farm'. To be able to handle her drafts and see the little notes in the margins and to be able to discuss journalism and fiction with her (because I'm sure she was a kindred spirit).

    Sharanya
    sharanyahrishikesh88@gmail.com

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    1. I've just read her novel Bassett, and liked it so much - more sooon!

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  8. I would love to read this too! I had a discussion with a colleague today revolving around my realisation that I don't really have any storiesworthy of sharing as a writer BUT I am totally passionate about reading... I really wish I could be a publisher. Hopefully 36 isn't too late fora career change!

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  9. Love your review! I feel the same way about Athill; she is such a modest and unassuming person, yet her intelligence and humanity really shine through. The things she put up with for her authors! And the lengths she went to for them! I so want to adopt her as a grandmother, but I expect there's a long, long line....

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    1. Thank you Victoria! I'm so looking forward to reading more of the Athill books I have waiting.

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  10. Simon, it would be great to win a copy of "Stet" as it is already on my TBR list! Thanks for including those of us who live in far-flung places.

    I would have loved to have been AA Milne's editor. Not that he needed much help, I just would have liked to get a first look at his wonderful essays and stories.

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    1. And congratulations on being the one who did win! Wouldn't it have been fun to be AAM's editor? Although I get the impression that he didn't welcome edits...

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  11. It's so rare for giveaways to let international readers participate and I'm so happy about that because Stet sounds really interesting! I've always wanted to hear about editors (who are some times unappreciated) and their relationships with authors. So I'm throwing my name in.

    If I could pick any author it would be Agatha Christie. She's one of my favorites and I'd love to see the evolution from her first drafts to the finished book. Even if it took out all the fun of reading it later (which I doubt it would).

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    1. The book went off to the US in the end; sorry it wasn't you!

      I am intrigued with the writing process for Christie's novels - what sort of plans she made, etc. Great choice!

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  12. Thank you making this giveaway international! Stet sounds fascinating.

    I think I'll be "low" literary and wish I could have edited Agatha Christie's work. Maybe that level of attention to detail would have allowed me to crack the case(s). ;-)

    debbie at exurbanis (fdot) com

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    1. Haha! Yes, maybe... I'm supposed to be writing a murder mystery party for this weekend, so I need to get into Christie mindset.

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  13. Being lazy I'm going to choose Barbara Pym as I don't think a lot of work would have been involved and I would love to have met her.

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    1. I did get to read her notebooks a while ago, very briefly, as they're in the Bodleian. What fun!

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  14. I have read a couple of other Diana Athill memoirs so love the sound of Stet.
    Who would I have liked to edit? It would have to be Thomas Hardy - for no reason other than I love his work so much I would have had to read and read and read it over and over - and go back in time and talk to the man himself about his work and intentions.

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    1. I think Somewhere Towards the End will be the next one I read. And Hardy is a fun choice - I'd love to see how much he changed, and whether his plots changed as he wrote.

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  15. I read some of Diana Athill's stories around the time her Persephone book came out, and loved them. I know next to nothing about editing a book though I was a journalism major.

    If I could be the editor for any author's books, I think I'd have to pick Anthony Trollope -- he wrote so many wonderful books. The story is that he got up early every day and wrote a certain number of words, no matter what. He's since been criticized for inconsistent writing -- apparently some people think that if he wasn't inspired, he shouldn't have written anything. I'd like to see firsthand if that was a good or bad technique.

    Now I must go back and finish those Athill stories.

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    1. I must read some of her stories myself - editors *should* be brilliant writers, really, shouldn't they?

      Trollope would be a fascinating case, excellent choice....

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  16. I'll go with William Maxwell. I wouldn't dare to touch a word that he wrote but he would surely strike up a wonderful correspondence with his new English editor.

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    1. Another wonderful editor! I wonder what editor's editors have to do?

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  17. I instantly thought that I'd like to edit Barbara Kingsolver - she seems so meticulous that I imagine there would be little to do and I could just relax and enjoy getting the first read.
    Thanks for doing the giveaway.

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  18. I have to admit that, despite having seen everyone else's reviews of this show up in my Google Reader recently, your's is the only one I've actually read. I've been disinterested in Athill since reading one of her memoirs a few years ago; I enjoyed it but not enough to feel motivated to read her other books. However, the focus on her work here is tempting. If I decide to read Athill again, this will be the book I start with.

    Inspired by Mary's comment above, I'd choose Sylvia Townsend-Warner to edit because that way I could strike up a wonderful trans-Atlantic correspondence that would ideally spend more time focusing on domestic rather than business details.

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    1. This was easily the Athill memoir which most appealed - I'll let you know what I think of her others, if I manage to read any of the ones amassing on my shelf...

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    2. Oh, and STW is a great choice - although she couldn't do better than William Maxwell as an editor, could she?

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  19. I would love to have been an editor for Anne McCaffrey just so I could talk to her and discuss her world of dragons and go and visit her at her home in Ireland. Thanks for doing this. The books sounds very interesting!

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    1. Oh, yes, visiting the author would be an additional joy!

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  20. Stet sounds really intriguing. Would like to be counted in please.

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    1. Sorry you didn't win, Mystica, but hope you manage to track down a copy!

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  21. This sounds quite fascinating; count me in, please! I would have loved to have been Margery Sharp's editor; I doubt one would have had to work terribly hard as she was a meticulously careful writer. I would have loved to have met her; I suspect a kindred spirit of sorts, at least going by her keenly sarcastic (but seldom mean-spirited) voice as it comes off the page.

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    1. I'm determined to read more Sharp this year - especially with this reminder of her style (the only one I read was back in 2002 or 2003, so it's been a while.)

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  22. oh oh, sounds like a great book! thanks for the giveaway.
    I want to be an editor for Ali Smith!! [There But For The]
    Emma
    ehc16e at yahoo dot com

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    1. I have been meaning to read that, when I'm feeling brave...

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  23. I would love to be included in this give-away please. I really want to read this one.
    And as far as editing an author I would have loved to edit Daphne du Maurier. She has so many and such wonderful works that I would have been able to chat with her about, especially her memoirs. And she wouldn't have intimidated me as Virginia Woolf or Vita Sackville-West would surely have.

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    1. Oh gosh, can you imagine editing Woolf? Utterly terrifying! Although Daphne du Maurier could be rather sharp herself, so she might not have been fun either...

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  24. John Le Carre (I was inspired by having read his piece in the Guardian last week). He wrote so precisely about those people gripped in varying degrees by the chill of the Cold War, and traced such a painful line between real life and fiction. I can't imagine being lucky enough to talk to him but I would value every minute.

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    1. I love how many wonderful ideas people have had for this question! I've not read any le Carre, but you make him sound fascinating.

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