Gesa Stedman laments the death of editor Diana Athill, and explains gentlemanly publishing – a concept unknown to younger 21st-century readers.
20th-century-style publishing died its final death recently, with the acclaimed editor Diana Athill passing away aged 101 on 23 January 2019.
She was one of the last key players of gentlemanly publishing, a term unbeknown to younger readers of this blog since it doesn’t exist any longer. Conglomerates have long snapped up independent publishing houses, and those that remain, or have re-emerged, function with a quite different system. Thus, gentlemanly publishing as a concept is dead in the 21st century.
Another feature of 20th-century publishing is also dying, if not dead yet: the art of careful and long-term editing. If you want to find out how it worked, there is no better place to start than with the first volume of the acclaimed Diana Athill’s memoirs, entitled Stet, first published in 2000. The editor of, among other writers, Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, V.S. Naipaul and many others, takes you on a tour of her early days with André Deutsch, the publishing house which she helped found after WWII. Unruly piles of manuscripts, literary lunches, mal-functioning offices, typewriters, difficult authors – you will find all of that. But you will also find the dedication, the talent, the professionalism in spite of all the seeming unprofessional, slap-dash management of early-20th-century publishing houses, which made literary works better than they were at the outset.
Editors still exist of course, and long may they do so! But their work and their time is so different from the early days, Diana Athill would probably barely recognise what her younger successors do in the same job she held for so many years before she turned into a successful writer herself. Tight deadlines, technology, celebrity authors, hard-driven profit margins all make it rather more difficult to foster and nurture literary talent as an editor. Not so Diana Athill: she took her time editing manuscripts, and was persistent. Recalcitrant authors were coerced, mollycoddled, talked to again and again in order to get them to give up their manuscripts and let them be improved by the sympathetic yet hard-nosed Athill.
Nostalgia is the order of the day and I certainly would not want to return to the early-20th-century, not least because of its macho male publishing culture. But I often wish that editors had more time, less pressure, and more power to make authors write better books. Perhaps we would have fewer books, and it would take longer to publish them. But maybe, their quality would last a bit longer than many of the products that get thrown on the market too fast and at a too early stage…
Diana Athill, Stet: An Editor’s Life, New York, 2000, currently available as a paperback from Granta books, 2011.
An extract is available on the Guardian website: