Stet – Diana Athill: A Review

Date finished: February 16th 2017

In reading books relevant to my publishing course, I happened upon Thomas Maschler’s memoir Publisher, which chronicled his career as Head of Jonathan Cape. It was a somewhat superficial experience, a thinly-veiled excuse to brag about the famous people he’d met, and whinge about people he didn’t like. It was poorly-written, peppered with non-sequiturs, and reduced what was undoubtedly an incredible career to vignettes of social climbing. In short, I wasn’t a fan.

img_4117Diana Athill, however, is likable from the start, wryly remarking that she wrote the book simply because she “shall not be alive much longer”, although it’s worth pointing out she’s wrong on this count. Published in 2000 when Athill was at the ripe old age of 83, Athill is still going strong and, God willing, will turn 100 at the end of this year.

Athill chronicles her fifty year publishing career working at Allan Wingate and then André Deutsch, delving into the process of publishing, the authors, the overarching business and much more. Unlike Maschler who dedicates an unnecessary amount of his memoirs to his relationship with high-flying authors, Athill separates her autobiography into two volumes: one focusing on her career, and the other on a select few authors. She also writes passionately about the books she loves, often ones that have since been forgotten. It’s a far more intelligent and human work than Maschler’s lacklustre effort; and does much more to elucidate the job of an editor, whereas you could be forgiven for not knowing what Maschler’s role actually was, aside from to incessantly hobnob.

The second half of Stet delves into her working relationships with a handful of authors: Brian Moore, Mordecai Richler, Jean Rhys, V. S. Naipaul and Molly Keane. In each case, she uses her own experiences and the author’s own work to give an idea of the personalities of these compelling individuals. Naipaul and Rhys are the only familiar names to me, and I’ve read none of the authors, but I enjoyed reading about them – from Jean Rhys’ complete inability to look after herself to V. S. Naipaul’s growing arrogance – more than I did reading about many of the authors Maschler briefly sketched over in Publisher.

Stet is everything Publisher wan’t. It’s unpretentious, honest, personal, professional, funny, philosophical, nostalgic and enjoyable. It’s the written equivalent of joining Athill in her front room and listening to her reminisce next to the fire over a glass of wine, transforming a book I picked up for it’s relevance to my career path into a pleasurable read.

Related Reading

Publisher – Thomas Maschler

The Silkworm – Robert Galbraith (a crime thriller set against the backdrop of the publishing industry)


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