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the Complete Review
the complete review - memoir


Diana Athill

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To purchase Stet

Title: Stet
Author: Diana Athill
Genre: Memoir
Written: 2000
Length: 250 pages
Availability: Stet - US
Stet - UK
Stet - Canada
  • An Editor's Life

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Our Assessment:

B+ : nice glimpse of the editing life, and of a few authors -- but only a glimpse

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Economist . 9/9/2000 .
Evening Standard< A 18/8/2000 David Sexton
The Independent . 10/8/2001 Christopher Hirst
New Statesman . 14/8/2000 Kathryn Hughes
The NY Times Book Rev. . 1/4/2001 Evelyn Toynton
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/3/2001 Andrea Behr
The Spectator . 7/10/2000 Timothy Mo
TLS . 11/8/2000 Gabriele Annan

  Review Consensus:

  Enjoyed it

  From the Reviews:
  • "Miss Athill has written a gossipy book about her trade. It has good stories about V.S. Naipaul, Brian Moore and Jean Rhys among others, and a gripping account of the battle for the soul of the firm between Deutsch and Tom Rosenthal, who took it over in its dying days." - The Economist

  • "Stet, then, is a marvellous title for a memoir -- and Diana Athill's account of her life as a publisher and the writers with whom she worked fully lives up to it. Diana Athill is the mistress of a cool, seemingly careless style." - David Sexton, Evening Standard

  • "Compared to the glitzy twaddle packing most publishers' lists today, Deutsch was a beacon. Anyone aiming for a career in publishing should not miss this insightful account." - Christopher Hirst, The Independent

  • "Athill, however, is incapable of anything but the strictest candour, as much about herself as anyone else. The result is a narrative in which the passing literary stars take second place to an extraordinary guiding intelligence -- sceptical, amused, humane." - Kathryn Hughes, New Statesman

  • "(H)er engaging memoir, Stet: An Editor's Life, is full of juicy stories about the egos and libidos behind the public reputations of the distinguished literary personages she has known." - Andrea Behr, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Some writers’ authorial voices are quite unlike them; Diana’s is a distillation of herself. She doesn’t write well, she writes wonderfully well" - Timothy Mo, The Spectator

  • "Athill's own forte is describing people. Her portrait of the late André Deutsch is wickedly comical and full of incidents he might have preferred unmentioned -- but not unkind; so she lives up to her standards of good gossip." - Gabriele Annan, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Diana Athill has done other things (including writing several books) but first and foremost she was an editor. She worked for André Deutsch (after having a brief fling with him), first for his Allan Wingate-house (the name chosen because "Deutsch" was presumed to be too inflammatory so close after World War II), and then for the eponymous André Deutsch Limited.
       The first half of this publishing memoir offers a bit of autobiography and some stories of the editing life. The second half focusses on a few authors Athill dealt with. The title is the editing-term for rescuing a deletion (as Athill puts it), and with Stet Athill hopes to rescue these memories before they are completely deleted (she was born in 1917, after all).
       Athill offers excuses right at the beginning. "Put in all the figures -- that is what one wants to know" she is told; unfortunately she doesn't remember figures well and so this is one of the things that (with a few exceptions) one doesn't find here. But Stet nevertheless offers a decent of look at the editing and publishing world in England from the 1940s through the 1980s.
       Athill offers anecdotes and a bit of editorial commentary. There are stories of small (and larger) failures, and books that helped establish the houses (Norman Mailer, early Philip Roth, John Updike) and nods at overlooked but worthy stuff. (We could hardly disapprove of a book that goes out of its way to praise, for example, Merce Rodoreda.) There are the usual difficulties of running a publishing house: from what lists to run (how long can they get away with their cookbook list ...) to what big buys can be made.
       Athill emphasizes she's an editor (rather than a publisher), but editing doesn't led itself to much (interesting) description, and so Athill unfortunately doesn't go into too much detail about the hands-on work with the manuscripts. At least she offers a few amusing anecdotes -- such as when she worked on a book about Tahiti, written "by a man who could not write". She appears to have essentially rewritten the entire book, and when a review in the TLS praised it as "beautifully written" the author took it as proof that all the fuss about his writing hadn't been necessary (failing to see that it was Athill's (re)writing that was being praised, not what he had put down on paper).
       The stories are fun, and André Deutsch -- both the man and the publishing house -- are quite nicely captured. Deutsch apparently had quite the personality, but he certainly put it to good use and the Deutsch-list was, for a while, a most impressive one. (Deutsch also played a major role in founding the African Universities Press in Nigeria, and the much-missed East African Publishing House.)
       It's the tone that makes the book, however. Athill has a nice, off-hand way of recounting the major and minor incidents, and the book is a pleasure to read. It's a lot of material, however, and in the publishing-half she occasionally appears to be only skimming the surface -- though she does so very smoothly.
       The second half of the book focusses on a few authors, with Athill doing a good job of explaining the types of relationships that can arise between author and editor -- arguing, also, that true friendship is practically impossible given an author-editor relationship.
       She writes of her experiences with a number of authors, devoting chapters to: Mordecai Richler and Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V.S.Naipaul, and Molly Keane. Offering interesting insights into these characters, they are also surprisingly depressing -- Rhys, Chester, and Naipaul are all particularly sad writer-folk, and sound like none too pleasant people, overall. (Another argument -- as if any more were needed -- for hailing the writing and ignoring the author .....)

       Stet is a nice little book -- or rather: two books in one. We would have preferred one or the other -- or both, but separate and greatly expanded. The author-profiles are rather dark and disturbing, and the publishing experiences seem far more interesting, but many readers will no doubt like to read the biographical details about Rhys and Moore and Naipaul. Athill has a nice touch -- though it is perhaps a bit too light and quick here -- and Stet does make a fine, quick read. It also offers a good picture of the world of English publishing in the second half of the 20th century.

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  • Granta publicity page
  • Grove Press publicity page
  • Article at The Guardian
  • Column by Robert Fulford about V.S. Naipaul & Diana Athill (The National Post, January 2, 2001)
Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Diana Athill was born in 1917 and is an editor and author.

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