No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, May 08, 2006

#42: Stet -- Diana Athill

Written when the author was in her eighties, this is the story of a life in publishing. Half of the book is an account of Athill's life, with emphasis on the early years of publishing house Andre Deutsch, dealing with the difficulties of producing affordable quality books in the post-war period -- and the difficulties of dealing with Andre Deutsch himself, a man who liked absolute control and / or someone to blame. The second part of the book is given over to reminiscences about some of the authors whose works Athill edited: Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul. She has an excellent eye for detail (the 'beady eye', she calls it) and is accurate without cruelty.

'Stet', in proof-reading terminology, means 'let the original stand': this was how things stood. There's a strong sense of Athill's personality in Stet: an independent woman with a strong propensity for idleness, who never worked harder than she had to for any extended period, and was lucky to have found a career that she enjoyed and was good at. She was determined to stay an editor, choosing and editing books, rather than a publisher who'd have to deal with all the minutae of running a publishing house: finances, advertising, production, supply ... Personally, I think the world would be a better place if ambition were insisted upon a little less. But that's just me, idle.

Athill has some more or less scathing remarks about the current state of publishing. Whole generations have grown up to find images more exciting than words, and the roaming of space via a computer more exciting than turning a page. Of course a lot of them still read: but a progressively smaller lot, and fewer and fewer can be bothered to dig into a book that offers any resistance. Although these people may seem stupid to us, they are no stupider than we: they just enjoy different things.

And later, commenting on the expectations of 'great' writers such as Naipaul: every publisher knows you don't necessarily become a best-seller by writing well. Of course you don't necessarily have to write badly to do it: it is true that some best-selling books are written astonishingly badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the writing -- even the quality of the thinking -- is irrelevant. It is a matter of whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public, as opposed to the serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art.

And summarising, at the end: the greatest demand [is] for the quick and easy and for the simple, instantly recognisable flavours such as sugar and vinegar, or their mental equivalents ...

What will stay with me from this book, though, is something that the author perhaps did not intend: the idea that old age need not mean any diminution of faculties or fervour, that one might grow old and still care, still think, still be the same person. Athill's clear sight and dry humour are wonderfully affirming, and her evident love and appreciation of life, "something to enjoy and to foster as much as possible; something not to betray by succumbing to despair", is inspirational.

Old people don't want to mop and mow, but age has a blinkering effect, and their narrowed field of vision often contains things that are going from bad to worse: it is therefore consoling to be reminded that much exists outside that narrow field, just as it did when we were forty or thirty or twenty.

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