Behind every good author

November 17, 2000

In 1945, Diana Athill joined her friend, the young Hungarian emigre André Deutsch, as an editor at his first publishing company, Allan Wingate. Here, Deutsch famously published Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead and went on, in 1952, to found the company that bore his name and that survived as an independent until the mid-1990s. Athill became a director and commissioning editor and, together, they produced a glittering list that included Jack Kerouac, V. S. Naipaul, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, John Updike, Brian Moore and Mordecai Richler. By the end of her nearly 50-year career, Athill had earned the reputation of being one of the best editors in London.

What she did and whom she worked with form the basis of this very personal memoir, which is sometimes indulgent but whose sense of character and precision win through. Athill charts the history of the small independent publishing house and conveys lovingly the feel of a literary publishing culture all too threatened by today's harsher commercial climate. She tells us about the authors who made the greatest impression on her and throws light on the minefield of ambiguity that is the author-editor relationship.

Athill wants us to know what she did because it mattered to her, from the mundanity but importance of good copy-editing, where one's shock at a split infinitive must not allow one to overlook errors of fact, to making crucial structural interventions such as the one she made when working on Jean Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea . To Athill's relief, Rhys accepted her suggestion that the demise of Mr Rochester and Antoinette's marriage was too abrupt and rewrote it.

Athill plays down her commissioning triumphs, claiming that her publishing successes were simply a question of her ability to tell "good books from bad". Besides, she was always "useless at exercising business sense", leaving that side of things to Deutsch. So, one looks in vain for revelations as to size of advances offered and to whom. In its heyday, Deutsch achieved an annual profit, yet the literary quality of the list was not compromised. Athill looks back with sadness to that time when she and Deutsch were free to publish "the books we liked", including a proportion of "good" books that did not sell. The books that had a lasting impact were not necessarily those that did well for the firm. Like Gitta Sereny's study of evil Into That Darkness , they taught her something about life.

One cannot edit a book without establishing a relationship with the author. What the boundaries of that relationship should properly be is a question close to Athill's heart, and one suspects that behind the steely clarity with which she dissects this subject lies the pain of betrayal and disappointment. It is difficult, if you care about the writing, not to care about the person and not to want something in return. In Athill's experience, however, an editor should never expect friendship from an author; being close to the writing cannot mean being truly close to the writer. It is all too easy for an editor to confuse a short-lived intimacy with friendship: intimacy can arise when an author responds warmly to an editor's admiration, but this warmth will last only as long as the author is satisfied with the publisher's performance. An author's dependency on an editor does not make for friendship either. Athill went to the lengths of nursing Rhys through illness and practical ineptitude, yet the relationship remained one-sided.

It is hard to disagree with Athill's conclusion that it is the contractual realities that make friendship impossible: the writer's resentment of the need for a middleman to produce and sell the book, and the brute fact that the writer is the publisher's financial investment. An editor must not expect friendship, but she should try to like her authors in order to work well with them. Athill makes this sound easy, until you read her acute account of her relationship with V. S. Naipaul, whose career she nurtured for 20 years. Reluctantly, she concedes that an admiration for the work does not always equate with an admiration for the person. Naipaul's self-importance, his continual need to confide in her his depressions, his disdain for his wife and his unshifting pessimism turned liking him into an act of will.

Athill's candour is always tempered with affection, and what she reveals about writers' lives is often intriguing but never malevolent. Stet is worth reading as a small piece of publishing history, but what lingers in the mind is its insight into the emotional costs of being an editor.

Mary Tomlinson is fiction editor, Bloomsbury Publishing.


Author - Diana Athill
ISBN - 1 86207 388 0
Publisher - Granta
Price - £12.99
Pages - 256

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