Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Publishers' memoirs

Yesterday, while looking through some notes for a lecture on publishing, I came across a bibliography which I prepared for the students and which lists a couple of publishers’ memoirs. Both, I think, are worth a brief mention.

First on the list is Diana Athill’s book Stet. The subtitle is ‘An editor’s life’, and the kind of editing referred to is, of course, book editing.

Stet has been described as a chronicle of a vanished age, an account of the time before the conglomerates took over, when it was still possible to run a publishing company from one rented room with your ideals of literary quality intact. As such, the book is certainly not a reliable guide to present circumstances, but I found it interesting nonetheless.

Diana Athill is a single lady, now retired, and she spent most of her working life at André Deutsch, a firm which has long since been absorbed into a conglomerate. Run by its founder of the same name, Deutsch was for a while a successful middle-rank publisher in the UK and Diana Athill worked closely with some famous names such as V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys. The firm also published a longish list of distinguished American writers, among them Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, and John Updike.

Stet has much to say which is of value to writers, and it is mercifully short. The author had a complicated personal life, and she wrote other books which provide an account of that. Incidentally, she was clearly a lady with firm views on punctuation, and some of her own is a bit unusual. But since she is consistent we must assume that her practice is deliberate.

In her text, Diana mentions a memoir by a former colleague, Jeremy Lewis, entitled Kindred Spirits. She tells us that this memoir describes exactly what it was like to work for a British publisher in the days when publishing was still an occupation for gentlemen, and indeed it does.

Kindred Spirits reveals that Jeremy Lewis was, by his own admission, uncomfortable and not very successful in pretty well every job he ever had in the book trade (outside of freelance work). As a result there was a pattern to his working life which was repeated several times.

First he would get a job with a publisher or an agent. Then he would find, after a time, that he didn’t like the job and wasn’t much good at it. And then he would begin to take longer and longer lunches. Eventually the directors would call him into the board room and say, ‘Now look here, Jeremy old chap, we feel that things aren’t really working out terribly well.’ And Jeremy would say, ‘No, no, I’m afraid you’re right.’ And then he would resign, to great sighs of relief all round.

Later that day he would go to a pub where publishing folk gathered and let it be known that he was leaving his present post. And someone would tell him that they had heard that Clapham and Irons had a vacancy in marketing. So Jeremy would wander round to see a pal of his in Clapham and Irons (because everyone knows everyone in UK publishing), and he would let this chap know that he was available. And a bit later on the pal would wander into his boss’s office and say, ‘By the way, I think I’ve found someone for that job in marketing.’ And so the cycle would begin again.

Late in life, Jeremy Lewis seemed to find his vocation as a writer rather than a publishing employee. He has written biographies of Cyril Connolly and Tobias Smollett; and, if internet references are to be believed, he is the literary editor of The Oldie.

The story I like best in Kindred Spirits is one that Jeremy tells about his fellow memoirist, Diana Athill. One gets the impression, from Diana’s own book, that she came from a rather posh family. Daddy, one imagines, was probably a retired Colonel, and Mummy probably chaired the county council and kept the natives in order. At weekends, Diana would probably go home and walk the dogs on the family estate. This, however, is not quite the way it was.

One Friday, Jeremy found himself needing to deliver a ms to Diana. So he rang her up to establish a convenient time to call. Diana told him that she was just leaving the office, but she would be in London over the weekend, and she gave him an address where he could find her.

On Saturday morning, Jeremy set off to hand over the ms. As he turned into the road where she was supposed to be found, Jeremy began to suspect that he had made a mistake in writing down the address. And when he reached the house with the right number, he was convinced of it. However, just to check, he rang the doorbell.

The beat of very loud West Indian music could be heard emanating from the house, and he had to wait some time for an answer. But eventually the door was opened by a very large black gentleman in a shirt which was almost as loud as the music. The smell of most unEnglish food, plus a whiff of exotic cheroots, filled the air. Jeremy nervously stated his business, and the black gentleman told him to wait.

After a pause Diana appeared at the door. She was wearing a very short miniskirt and a blonde wig.

‘Oh, hello, Jeremy!’ she said brightly. And then she took the ms from his hand and went back inside.

No comments: