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  • Stet
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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Diana Athill was a literary book editor for nearly fifty years. This is a career she seems to have fallen into rather than planned. We get glimpses of her personal background but by and large she concentrates of giving us insights into her work.

Diana Athill begins by telling us that she has always been "much nearer poor than rich". But then we hear about the gardener's boy of her childhood and Nanny. Not mega-rich perhaps but certainly far from poverty! But she had a need to make her own way in the world and her love of language (and degree in English from Oxford) led her into the literary world.

She was obviously a brilliant editor and makes many incisive comments on the work of her authors. She is frank about her own talents and shortcomings and when things have gone wrong (e.g. an author moving to a new publisher) she is unafraid to take her share of the blame. For much of her career she worked with André Deutsch and she gives a fascinating insight into his talent, his temper and his penny-pinching. She explains how publishers attempt to do well by their authors but some are much more difficult to satisfy than others. It probably gave her a degree of satisfaction (revenge?) to lift the lid on her relationship with people like Brian Moore, Jean Rhys and V. S. Naipaul.

A very enjoyable read - it is suffused with her obvious enthusiasm for books and writers and written in a chatty and gossipy style. And she even reveals a rather racy private life!
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on 22 June 2015
I was somewhat nonplussed when I first read this, four or five years ago; I was irritated by Athill’s privileged background and was disappointed that she highlighted authors I had not read and, in several cases, had never heard of. But I sensed I was missing something. Rereading the book after several years, I see that I was.

Diana Athill was born in 1917 and brought up as part of the “county” set in Norfolk; she went to Oxford, and spent the war in the BBC – a job she got through a personal contact in its recruitment office; class was as powerful then as now. Disappointed in love, she fell into a series of relationships, one with a young refugee met at a party. (“He sat on the floor and sang ‘The Foggy Fogy Dew’, which was unexpected in a Hungarian.”) This was André Deutsch. The affair did not last long; the friendship, however, did and at the end of the war he asked her to join him in the publishing company he was founding. She was to work as an editor for the next 50 years, all but the last few with Deutsch himself. She says little in this book of her personal life, but she has written of that elsewhere. Stet – the word is a proofreader’s instruction, used to cancel a correction – is about Athill’s life in publishing.

The book is in two pretty much equal parts. The first is a narrative account of her career, mostly with Deutsch. The second recalls her work with a series of writers, the best-known of which are Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul; the others – Alfred Chester, Molly Keane, and one or two more – are no longer household names, if they ever were.

The first part of the book is a fascinating picture of postwar publishing in all its amateurish glory. When André Deutsch is founded in the 1950s, it works out of a converted house; books are dispatched from a packing bench that is a plank over the bath. This doesn’t surprise me; my first job, in 1974, was in publishing, and I sometimes ran the packing bench. It hadn’t changed much. But there is nothing amateur about Athill’s shrewd insight book buyers: “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... The second group has to be courted.” In Athill’s view, by the 1980s the second group had been seduced away by more visual media, leaving little space for literary publishing. She may have been right – then. But electronic publishing has now made books good value again, at least when sold by independents or small publishers whose overheads are low. So that second audience is being reclaimed (albeit mainly with genre books). Athill retired in the 1990s but still does the odd article and review, and one wonders what she thinks of this. She says little about technological change in general, although photosetting and on-screen page design arrived in her time.

When it comes to editing, though, Athill clearly had rigorous judgement. If a book didn’t quite work she didn’t want it, whoever had written it, and she rejected one of Philip Roth’s – a decision that caused her some pain later, but was surely right at the time. She had felt that he was writing about a different type of character than usual simply to prove that he could; and it did not ring true.

This is, in fact, the key to the second half of Stet. Athill has chosen to depict, not the writers with the highest profiles today, but those about whom she feels she has something to say. The result is a series of character sketches that do ring true, and draw you in whether you are interested in the writer or not. V.S. Naipaul is the only modern “superstar”. Of the others, I had heard of Jean Rhys and Molly Keane, but knew very little about them; I knew nothing of Alfred Chester at all. But I was fascinated. Both these, and the other, sketches suggest that Athill was not just a good editor; she was a generous friend to her writers as well. (And to Deutsch himself, who could clearly be a pain in the arse.)

Of these sketches, it is that of Jean Rhys that stands out. “No-one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels can suppose that she was good at life,” writes Athill, “but no-one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.” The later stages of Rhys’s life and the mess she had made of it, and her struggle with alcohol, are there – but so is her gift as a writer, and the strange early life that Athill felt explained much about her. The thumbnail sketch of V.S. Naipaul, too, is vivid, with a shrewd insight: that those whose cultural or national background is unclear must define themselves, and the personal resources needed for this can be great. They are not always there. As someone who has spent much of their life in an international milieu (in my case international development), I understand this all too well.

I am glad I read this again. Athill is, to be sure, a member of a privileged group – she uses the word caste – with an iron grip on the publishing world; but she knows that. This caste was “the mostly London-dwelling, university-educated, upper-middle-class English people [who] loved books and genuinely tried to understand the differences between good and bad writing; but I suspect... our ‘good’ was good only according to the notions of the caste.” She puts this in the past tense but one wonders if that caste and its prejudices have really quite gone yet. However, Athill’s judgement as an editor clearly transcends them. So does her empathetic and subtle understanding of those she met.

This is a charming book.
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on 21 January 2013
This was my fourth Athill, after her Letters, Make Believe and After a Funeral. Not sure that's the right order to go about things; in theory one should start here as it's the meat and potatoes of her life, working as a publisher or rather editor for Andre Deutsch.

But I found this account the least compelling so far. Her reason for writing it is fair enough; that one day she would be dead and she didn't want those memories consigned to oblivion, but it doesn't smack of a tale that urgently needs to be told otherwise. It doesn't help that I didn't know of the publishing firm beforehand, what it stood for and how it related to others of the time, such as Pan or Penguin. You'll look in vain for much bitchy competitiveness or how Tom the office boy took a secretary of a rival publishing firm over the photocopier, and thereby discovered documents relating to a plot to lure one of their novelists away. It's all far too genteel for that, and these are very much reminiscences where, unlike in David Niven's memoirs, you're not really in the moment, it's always in the mode of looking back.

I was pleased that Athill admits that, being a woman, she often enjoyed playing second fiddle and no ambition for the top job so long as she was doing what she enjoyed. I feel this is often the case with women in the business world, however I then got stymied when I read about her boss Andre Deutsch. He really does come across as another neurotic in Athill's world, Lord she does pick 'em, and a solid reason why any woman would want to be her own boss frankly. Athill talks about her beady eye, but she also comes across as a sitting duck with regards to these fussy, self-infatuated types who know they can offload on her.

Though I enjoy Athill's prose a lot, I do find myself casting a swipe at her in my write-ups, it's very poor I admit.

Anyway, the book is better for me when she is analysing the authors in the Andre Deutsch stable, she is spot on here and that makes up the second half of the book. If nothing else, you'll have plenty to add to your reading list at the end of it.
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on 17 September 2014
What was I thinking when I bought this?
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on 14 June 2012
This was a very good read and a valuable insight into the publishing trade, even if the world it looks back on has all but disappeared. Diana Athill is a lucid writer and you can tell she's the product of a bygone era; something about her style (her old-school grammar, for one) speaks of a time when English was much more prim and proper. It's the first of her books I've read and I'm tempted to come back for more.

I particularly enjoyed the memoir's second half, when Athill talks candidly about the authors she worked with over the years (Jean Rhys, V S Naipaul, etc). But I was hoping to hear more about John Updike, one of my favourite writers and a man that Athill edited on many occasions. She tells us he was an excellent craftsman whose books arrived "perfectly formed"... but beyond that, she's curiously silent. Surely he was more interesting to know than that? There's nothing else to tell, when you've got such good gossip on the rest of your clients? I found it slightly strange.
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on 11 August 2015
It was an undeniably fascinating and entertaining account of her life, with extremely interesting insights into the publishing business. However I couldn't help but give this book only three stars: it's true that the book is not meant to only talk about her work, and a little personal background is welcome to enrich the story, but I found extremely annoying the way she sometimes lingers on her sexual life. Honestly, I don't give a damn whom she slept with and how many times, and if she liked it or not. That's totally beyond the point of the book and found her choice of including such personal details rather inappropriate. I'm not making it a question of decency or anything, it's just that I bought the book to read about her life as an editor primarily, and I don't think this kind of information add any value to the book.
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on 16 April 2016
I loved this book. Diana Athill writes beautifully and very revealingly about her career in publishing, from the early post war days when good fiction was in such short supply that far more risks could be taken publishing new, promising-but-still-rough-around-the-edges authors than they are now. Her description of what it was like working for the brilliant but volatile Andre Deutsch is hilarious, while several other colleagues and authors do not escape her sharp pen. Frustratingly, when she describes the second worst career mistake she ever made (something to do with V S Naipaul), she leaves dangling the teasing question of what the worst one could have been... did she tell J K Rowling not to quit the day job?
The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst
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on 6 September 2015
I was a Morelock for an academic journal, Morelock being a reference to the low status apes who worked underground to keep the world going in The Time Machine. My colleague and I discussed whether we should both answer the phone as "Mrs Morelock." So when we heard of Stet we searched for a copy, interested in another view of mss. and proof-reading and Comma Wars. Her story was one of delight and devotion and (gulp) low pay. She must have been the editor every writer hopes to have. Free preview: she found the manuscripts of John Updike needed little blue pencil.
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on 23 September 2012
I really like Diana's account of her life with Deutsch. If you want to get into publishing and would like an overview, this is a good start. Whether as a writer, an editor or a publisher, this wonderfully written memoir has stories for everybody.
It is also a really good mix between publishing and real life (although most publishers probably feel they don't have a real life anymore)... There is love, drama, excitement, everything a good biography should have. Plus all the stories from Diana's editorial life.
Get it, read it, know yer publishing business.
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on 19 October 2012
I found this book really interesting. Diana Athill was an editor at Andre Deutsch and the book offers snap shots of various authors and of Ms Athill's life. She is a intelligent and witty writter and I really enjoyed this. I loved the view into publishing as it used to be. It reminded me of what we have lost with the decline of good editing and the rise of Tesco cheapie books and barely edited books / shelf published books / quickly produced ebooks. I also liked its robust style and occasionally trenchant views that don't sit so comfortably today
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