Monday 22 September 2008

The Editor's Cut

‘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 their editors a good start with them.’
- Diana Athill, writing in her memoir,
Stet: An Editor’s Life
(Granta: 2000).

I’ve found this to be true, both in my experience as a writer and editor.

Writers may cram their acknowledgements with the names of friends who deserve the Purple Heart for having served as first readers of a manuscript, but these friends, ultimately, form a support group; their witness to the creative process is vital, but seldom curative, even if the tenor of support is usually, very positively, pro-life.

Editors, on the other hand, to make things right, brew coffee and stir it with a sharpened pencil, turn on their internal Tourette’s feature, and read behind every word with an eye to a kill.

Writing is not as much about reading as most people might think –- it has too much to do with encoding information, even encryption; but editing is certainly about very close reading, as is (or was) literary criticism in the old days of New Criticism.

Interviewing Emma Richler years ago about her novel Sister Crazy, I asked the first-time novelist if having a ‘good editor’ was akin to finding a very a good reader? That’s exactly it, she responded, and right away I felt a little better about wearing the editor’s cap at Esplanade Books.

Emma Richler’s favourite book by her father is Barney’s Version. ‘I remember reading the first page and just sitting up, physically straightening, and I thought it was astonishing.’ Its an opinion shared by Diana Athill, who worked with Mordecai early on.

Athill helped André Deutsch establish his London publishing house in the 1950s. After a half century as literary editor, and having worked with (among others) Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, and V.S. Naipaul, she retired in 1993. Her memoir, Stet (2000), written when she turned eighty, is an unpretentious and absorbing account of the book trade. Beyond descriptions of the editor’s life, Athill is wonderful at elucidating, or demystifying, the timeless and plain human elements of the business, such as the natural ebb and flow of the relationship between writer and publisher. Getting to the heart of the matter, she writes that a publisher regards a book ‘as one among many, and in terms of his experience in the market; while the writer is thinking in terms of the only book that matters in the world.’

The second half of Stet is given over to intimate, if blunt, chapter-length portraits of Athill’s favourite writers-to-work-with: Richler (‘He was the least phoney person imaginable’; ‘… both his second and third novels had been better than the first, but both were still dimmed by a youthful earnestness…’); Moore (‘He was to prove incapable of writing a bad book.’); Naipaul (‘That someone so lacking in sexual experience and so puritanical should have to resort to prostitutes is natural; though I guess he did so infrequently, and with distaste.’); and Rhys (‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’ first four novels can suppose she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was.’)

Between the lines, emerges a formidable personality: Athill herself. The real prize for readers is her irresistible honesty. She is squeamish never, and sensible always. Her trademark is a disconcerting directness: logical analysis drenched in sangfroid. Witness this fabulous passage on the psychology of the writer and the making of a best-seller:

It is natural that a writer who knows himself to be good and who is regularly
confirmed in that opinion by critical comment should expect to become a
best-seller, but every publisher knows that you don’t necessarily become a
best-seller by writing well. Of course you don’t necessarily have to write badly
to do it: it is true that some bestselling books are written astonishingly
badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the
writing – even the quality of the thinking – is irrelevant. It is a matter of
whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public as opposed to the
serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art.

Athill is the author of six other books, including Instead of a Letter (1963), and, more recently, Somewhere Towards the End (2008).

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