Let It Be

An editor looks back on her life in publishing and discovers she doesn't want to change a line

It is second nature for an editor to change, erase, amend and rephrase. It thus takes some maturity and restraint for an editor to reread the text he has just edited - and to admit that it should stand as is. The professional lingo of editors includes a term for such "self-guessing": An editor who decides to leave the text in its original shape and form underlines his or hers proposed deletion and writes "stet" (from the Latin "stare," to stand) on the margin.

"Stet" is the title Diana Athill has chosen for her memoir. For almost 50 years, she was an editor (and minor partner) in the publishing firm of Andre Deutsch. She cannot supply numbers and figures, which would allow the readers to draw useful conclusions and learn something about publishing, its ways and its history. She was never interested in the "numbers" of publishing, and anyway, the archives of Andre Deutsch were sold to an American university.

So why write at all? "All this book is," she explains, "is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel less dead if a few people read it."

Athill stumbled into publishing after the Second World War, during which she worked for the BBC. She met two European emigrants, who were in the process of editing a literary magazine: the Austrian George Weidenfeld (whose ambition at the time was "very simple - to be a success") and the Hungarian Andre Deutsch. Weidenfeld was very much a ladies' man, according to Athill's account, his portly figure and frog face notwithstanding. But it is Deutsch that Athill went to bed with (without much excitement on either side, she remembers), and the brief liaison evolved into a long and fruitful publishing partnership.

During her long publishing and editorial career, she learned many things, and one of her lessons was that, "a friendship, properly speaking, between a publisher and a writer is, well, not impossible, but rare." And she should know, having edited - among many others - Mordechai Richler, Jean Rhys (whom she sort of "nursed along" during the writing of "Wide Saragasso Sea" and after) and V.S. Naipaul. This year's Nobel Prize winner for literature merits a whole chapter in Athill's book - and no wonder: Andre Deutsch published his first 18 books.

The circumstances of the publishing of "Miguel Street," Naipaul's first volume of short stories and his second book, and "The Mystic Masseur," his first novel and first published book, as described by Athill, are echoed in Naipaul's last novel, "Half a Life," whose hero publishes his first book in postwar London.

Athill has great respect for Naipaul as a writer and as someone whose whole self - his very being - is in his writing. But, in working with him for many years, she gradually began to develop sort of an aversion to the demands of their working relationship. When he decided to change publishers - after Athill dared to point out to him that one of the characters in one of his books was less then convincing (daring to do so only after a lot of soul-searching and hesitation) - she was initially sad and depressed. But, suddenly she realized that it was as though the sun had come out, and "I didn't have to like Vidia any more!"

At that time (the tiff was over "Guerrillas"), it was Naipaul who reconsidered and said to himself "stet." When he finally left Andre Deutsch in 1984, however, Athill couldn't really blame him.

Two types of book-buyers

The times were changing, and they were not kind to literary publishing firms like Andre Deutsch: "People who buy books, not counting useful how-to-do-it books, are of two kinds. 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, if not forever, then for as long as one can foresee.

"The second group has to be courted. It is the second, which makes the best-seller, impelled thereto by the buzz that a particular book is really something special; and it also makes publishers' headaches, because it has become more and more resistant to courting. What has been happening is that slowly - very slowly, so that often the movement was imperceptible - group No. 2 has been floating into another world. Whole generations have grown up to find images more entertaining than words, and the roaming of space via computer more exciting than turning a page. Of course, a lot of them still read, but progressively a smaller lot, and fewer and fewer can be bothered to dig into a book that offers any resistance."

Athill's book provides many insights into the world of literature and publishing, and offers anecdotes about books and people, but the reader is left wondering about the ratio between those two groups of readers.

The author does not supply those figures, but at the end of her book, there is sort of a hint: "Years ago, in a pub near Baker Street, I heard a man say that humankind is 70 percent brutish, 30 percent intelligent, and though the 30 percent is never going to win, it will always be able to leaven the mass enough to keep us going," and she hastens to add, lest this sound terribly elitist, "given that one takes `intelligence' to mean not just intellectual agility, but whatever it is in being that makes the readiness to understand, to look for the essence in other beings and things and events, to respect that essence, to collaborate, to discover, to endure when endurance is necessary, to enjoy: briefly, to coexist."

Andre Deutsch publishing did not endure: It was sold, and then folded, in the 1990s. For her part, Athill is far from inclined to reedit the story of her life, in publishing and after.

"In spite of reading the newspapers, and in spite of seeing the sad end of Andre's brave endeavor, and in spite of losing a considerable part of my youth to heartbreak, I wake up every morning liking being here. I have been extraordinarily lucky, and a good chunk of that luck came with the job. When I was moved to scribble `stet' against the time I spent being an editor, it was because it gave so many kinds of enlargement, interest, amusement and pleasure to my days. It was a job on the side of the 30 percent."