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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Let the Original Stand?

Stet (Granta Books) comes recommended by every publishing professor to every aspiring editor. Diana Athill, the wise nonagenarian and most legendary editor with over fifty years in the business is quick to claim her caste of "London dwelling, university educated, upper middle class English people who took over publishing towards the end of the nineteenth century from the booksellers who used to run it," in what is a slow, absorbing story of her life and times as an editor. A good book, is often decided by members of the caste Ms Athill warns you fairly early on in her narrative, and the 'god's eye view' that rides publishing, usually that of the wealthy patrician Englishman. Her memoirs of an underpaid life of zest and a mundane obsession with books and their worlds are a grounded recollection of her time in the trade. She reveals, "books have taken me so far beyond the narrow limits of own experience and have so greatly enlarged my own sense of the complexity of life: of its consuming darkness, and also thankgod of the light which continues to struggle through." The modest beginnings of her life in Oxford, or as a lighthouse keeper who toiled the midnight flame for Andre Deutsch through the thick and thin of an incestuous friendship and working  relationship, all unfold with easy progression. Diana questions and conforms with the myth of women being addicted to working for satisfaction as opposed to promotions or more money. Beneath the dust and moneymindedness of the bourgeois trade practices sparkle moments of a tough minded editor's honesty, repealed from all that gender induced politeness. The truth is simple as to what steers high sales:

'Thinking up' books on demand is one of the idlest occupations in all of publishing. If an interesting book has its origins in a head other than its author's, then it either comes in a flash as a result of compelling circumstances, or it is the result of someone's obsession which he has nursed until just the right author has turned up. Books worth  reading don't come from people saying to each other 'What a good idea!'. They come from someone knowing a great deal about something and having strong feelings about it."  

Ms Athill's memoir is a completely dressed down take of a life in publishing, with prolific connections, liasons of money, sex, heresy, etc. Prejudice flavored the intellect, if intellect was the "yeast of evolution." Diana profiles her relations with other staff,  publishers, authors, partners, patrons and other (mostly) men in suits to reveal much about her amicable personality coexisting with editorial perfection.

Part one of the book charts the beginnings of Deutsch's entrepreneurial stints with snatches of lurid exciting life from the gentlemen's world of publishing. I was unable to empathize with a narrator who cared little for the tangible or material fruits of recognition.  So understated is the memory of her own rise in a profession so mousy to its women in her time, that I am grinding my teeth hopelessly until I am thrown by surprise at the futility of my quest.

Part two of the book takes on a completely different energy, freer, perhaps because this is where she moves away from the rigid structures of office and commerce, and describes at length her interactions with her authors, detailing in other words, her actual work and what she is famous for, 'being an editor', not a publisher (as she has herself warned you in the first chapter of the book). Ms Athill's interactions with authors like Jean Rhys, Brian Moore, Alfred Chester and Mordai Richler are snapshots of rejuvenated brilliance that attire book 2, be it through nursing or midwifery with authors as mentally sick as Alfred or whimsical, mad as Naipaul. Her witness bares critical and often engaging analysis of author management with spiffy notes on editorial jurisdiction."Perhaps novelists are so often good at gossip because --like God with forgiveness - c'est leur metier," you can hear her chuckle.

The only reason I picked up Stet was for the number of times it came recommended. As a reader, I was distracted by how underpaid and exploited she remained throughout the book, as a guardian and caretaker of Andre Deusche Limited  and her stout refusal to ever back out or ever command her true price. The politics of the commercial workplace (not specific to the 40s when the company was founded), determined you remained if not a mere agent of somebody else's ideas, an ordinary pawn. Do unmarried women, bear the weight of the world more than they have to? Diana's wisdom and humor are a gentle reprieve from what is otherwise an all consuming uphill journey that Athill makes no bones about.

Embedded below is a high quality video of a photo shoot prelude to Diana's upcoming work Instead of a book.
The writing is elegant and classic, witty and learned, a testament to her times in the brave old world of ink. Her marketing nemesis may not be Alison Baverstock, who offers a slickside contemporary view of the glam (and not so glam) street in publishing biz, but the latter is often thrown up as lighter, modern day voice tweeting texts that span the present and future of books.
Seeing books as a  mass market item

The Book Marketing Bible, slightly obsolete 

P-School for Dummies or a P to Z guide to luring employers

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