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Diana Athill, still alive and feisty at the age of ninety-five, wrote her memoir Stet: An Editor’s Life while in her eighties. She has a strong and sassy voice that at first came off as grumpy which made me worry a little until I got to know her better. By the end of the book I was wishing we were friends so I could call her up for a lunch date.

Stet is a copy-editing term meaning “let it stand.” Athill’s memoir, Stet is broken into two parts. The first half is about how she came to be a founding editor of Andre Deutsch publishing. The second half is stories and reminiscence about a few authors who had a big impact on her. And what a fun ride the book is. Athill had the luck and pleasure to work in publishing from just after WWII until the mid 1980s. And all my romantic notions about what it is like to work for an important publisher, she lived them. Poorly paid, cramped offices, personalities to deal with (both authors and coworkers), lots to learn from some big mistakes, all made up for by meeting interesting people, the intellectual stimulation, and of course the books.

Throughout the book Athill drops the pearls of her editing experience. At one point she is talking about suggesting changes to the authors of their work and how most of the time authors were grateful and accepting of her suggestions. And then she says something really interesting:

mostly, if what is said by an attentive reader makes sense, the writer is pleased to comply. Writers don’t encounter really attentive readers as often as you might expect, and find them balm to their twitchy nerves when they do; which gives editors a good start with them.

I had never thought about how infrequently writers encounter attentive readers before. I now feel a little guilty for not always giving a book my full attention.

I had a good chuckle when Athill talks about the “pull of mystification” as in when you read a book and are totally baffled by it to the point of believing that it isn’t the book that is the problem but you the reader and so you end up thinking the book is brilliant because you don’t understand it. Athill has fallen prey to it but quickly learned how to suss it out. Nonetheless, she says, a good deal of junk masquerading as art gets published that way.

While an editor, Athill had two ground rules, don’t over-tinker with an author’s manuscript and never make changes the author does not agree to. Simple but not always easy.

The second half of the book is fun and dangerous. Fun because you get the inside scoop on what it was like to work with the likes of Jean Rhys and V.S. Naipaul. Dangerous because she title drops and gushes like crazy about books she has especially loved. Mount TBR grew several feet taller!

This is not a deep thinker of a book but it is lots of fun. I read it for the Slaves of Golconda group read. I thought the discussion started today but it turns out it starts tomorrow so I am a bit early. Others will be posting on their own blogs, on the Slaves’ blog and the discussion will likely carry over into our forum. Of course everyone is welcome to comment and join in!

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