100 Books in 2011 review: Stet

I’m sticking to my policy of not reviewing non-fiction even though many of the 100 books I’ll read this year will be non-fiction. I’m making an exception for Stet by Diana Athill because it was the February choice for my book club.

It is a memoir by someone who worked as an editor all her life. The book is in two halves. The first is a potted history of the author and the second is a series of vignettes about some of the authors with whom she worked. Those authors are Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore, Jean Rhys, Alfred Chester, V. S. Naipaul and Molly Keane.

I was quite excited about reading this. I’m not really interested in memoirs and biographies, but I thought that reading about someone who worked with words would be different. I was looking forward to an exploration of the art of editing.

That’s not what this book is about. Part one is a charmingly written precis of Athill’s life. It’s a long life and there is only a hundred and twenty eight pages to cover it. Which means that there is not much depth. Athill talks about how she became an editor, her relationships with her colleagues, the development of the publishing company she worked with and its eventual decline. She doesn’t really talk about editing except to say that some writers need more work than others. At only one point is there a sense that she helped to create a book and that was a book about Myra Hindley that the author found psychologically difficult. It was disappointing for me that Athill didn’t spend more time talking about the art of editing.

The authors in the second half of the book are mostly unknown to me. I read Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys and loved it, but I’ve read nothing else of hers. I read A House for Mr Biswas by V. S. Naipaul and hated it, but again, I’ve not read anything else. The others I know nothing of. I find that I don’t really want to know too much about artists, whether they are writers, actors, musicians or any other kind. If you enjoy someone’s work, you kind of have a fantasy about who they are. I tend to imagine that the authors I like are terribly clever, erudite, cultured and suave, with liberal, progressive politics. And of course, they’re not always like that. Surprisingly, they’re human and ordinary. Being a fantasist, I find that reality doesn’t live up to what I can imagine – perhaps that’s why I love speculative fiction!

So, I slogged through the vignettes. Like the first part of the book, they were charmingly written and lacking depth. I found the whole thing just dull. In fact I was so bored I skipped the book club meeting because I couldn’t face talking about this book for an hour.

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