Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill (2000)

For whatever reason this book had been sitting on my shelves since at least January, as I received it as a Christmas/birthday present (they are only ten days apart so I forget which this was for), but luckily I had a book audit a few weeks ago and came upon it again. I had started reading Wolf Among Wolves by Hans Fallada, an author I love, but being deep into the third trimester and therefore permanently exhausted I soon realised this was not the right book for me at the time – a bit heavy-going but also really, really long – and Stet by Diana Athill was the perfect antidote.

I’m obviously on maternity leave at the moment, so it doesn’t feel like I belong to any career sometimes, but I have in fact worked in publishing since 2013, and before that I was an intern at various publishing companies for two years. I initially worked in administration for just under two years until mid-2015, and then made the move to Editorial, so I think that was my impetus for wanting to read Stet. My current position is Senior Editorial Assistant, sort of like a junior or assistant Editor, working with authors constantly and doing a small amount of commissioning, but sadly not the hands-on editing that Athill describes throughout Stet – that is, working closely with the authors on the development of the text and copy-editing. This is partly because I work for a big company where copy-editing is farmed out to freelancers, but also because I am still an assistant rather than a fully-fledged Editor.

So, the world of publishing that Athill describes in Stet is one that I know about, have had glimpses of, but is not one of which I have firsthand experience. This is partly because she worked in commercial trade publishing, and I work in the academic field, but also because publishing is constantly changing and has changed an awful lot since she retired in the early 1990s. So I think for anyone who works, or has worked, in publishing, Stet will be a largely nostalgic reading experience. It was lovely to read about the development of Andre Deutsch’s two companies and Athill’s close involvement with them, and how they worked and grew over the years. For me it was also wonderful to read about Athill’s relationships with various authors over the years and how they shaped her career and the company. Going in I didn’t realise that the second half of the book is dedicated to her experiences with six authors over her career – some of these I had heard of and knew a bit about, such as Jean Rhys, but nevertheless it was interesting to read these more in-depth chapters about specific people and the relationship between editor and author, and how it can vary hugely depending on the people and the circumstances.

There is a quote on the cover of my copy of Stet from the Observer saying that the book is “written unashamedly for those who care about books” and I think this is largely true, but I think you need to care about publishing as well – either because you work in the industry or find it particularly interesting for whatever reason. Athill shares few personal details throughout the book and it’s very much a snapshot of her career with Andre Deutsch, and I’m not sure how engaging it would be if you weren’t interested in publishing or hadn’t heard of any of the authors, people, or companies mentioned throughout. I think I am part of the intended audience for this book, but I have to say I found the first half, that takes us through Athill’s career, a bit sparse and meandering. She jumps through the years and I feel like there were big gaps where huge sections of time were skipped. A few specific periods or incidents are explored, but Stet is very much an overview of Athill’s time an as editor and, whether wisely or not, I expected a bit more to come from fifty years in the industry.

Athill is a very engaging writer and is generally likeable, as she’s modest and underplays her own talent or importance – but this also means that she often doesn’t take that much time to really explore her experiences and instead talks more about other people and the wider picture when, I think, if you’ve made the point of reading someone’s memoir, you want to hear more about their personal experiences and interpretations of things. To be fair, I know that Athill wrote several memoirs and that this one is specifically about her editing career, so perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps if I read some of those other memoirs then I would have a better, more well-rounded picture of things. On its own, I found Stet to be charming and engaging, but ultimately a bit unsatisfying and like it was missing something. But perhaps that’s just me.

*

Published by Granta Books in 2000. I read the 2017 Granta paperback, pictured above.

Purchase from Foyles, Wordery, and Blackwell’s.

2 thoughts on “Stet: An Editor’s Life by Diana Athill (2000)”

  1. You perfectly describe the reading experience, I remember hoping she’d share more of her experience and was less interested in what was at the time so guess an interest in the minor celebrity of her authors, I wonder if it’s because she didn’t think her life was interesting to readers or whether she was encouraged to focus so much on the 6 writers deemed to be worth writing about?
    I hope you’re coping with this heat ok and finding a way to keep cool. All the best with the new busy stage in your family life. 🌸

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    1. Yes, perhaps modesty was part of it – I have no idea how famous/well known she was as a writer when this book came out in 2000. Nice to hear about famous figures but I always love the personal side of memoirs so I did miss that a bit. Nonetheless she has a lovely style and it was really nice to read. Thank you for the well wishes, staying cool so far! Hope you are too!

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