Journeys with literary lions, armed with a red pen
This was a surprisingly fascinating and enjoyable read. Surprising, because I wouldn’t necessarily have thought ‘I can’t wait to find out about the world of publishing’ Nevertheless, Athill illustrates my belief that it is possible to find anything in this world fascinating, providing one has the right teacher/companion to make the learner/listener/reader look at things in a different way. Passion, enthusiasm and the desire to share the enjoyment of whatever-it-is are profoundly catching.
Athill, I learn, was regarded as the best copy editor in London. Not surprising really, as she is a fine writer herself, and possessed of many skills beside her obvious intelligence, love of and engagement with fine writing and precise literary skills. She has opened my eyes to other skills an excellent editor might need – the ability to carefully steer through the minefield of the author’s vulnerable ego, protective towards their work as the parent might be of a new-born baby. Empathy and diplomacy, and, something which did not strike me before, humility and a well-balanced ego, which does not get ruffled easily. A generosity of spirit to care about the writing itself, and a real love and belief in the importance of writing.
Her book is divided into two halves, firstly, her journey as a lowly paid editor and director of Andre Deutsch, from its post-war inception to its vanishing – this details much which is fascinating about the world of reading, of the way of the artist versus the way of the conglomerate, of the rise of books as mass marketed media celebrity commodities, and the mounting deluge of books good, bad and indifferent like so many varieties of same same breakfast cereals.
The second half examines in greater detail her relationship as an editor/publisher with several writers who were on Deutsch’s list, V.S. Naipaul, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Molly Keane, Mordecai Richler and Alfred Chester.
Now aged 95 and still sounding remarkably robust, sharp minded and insightful, even if physically age is tweaking her, she is enjoying a (rightful) loyal following as a writer herself, no doubt as insightfully clear about where she needs to apply her red pen to her own writing as she was to her clients at Deutsch.