Friday, May 29, 2009

Stet by Diana Athill

From the jacket: "This is a book about books, about the people who write them and the process of making them, a world dissected with sharp and irresistible honesty." Irresistible describes Athill's prose style very well. She knows how to tell a good story in few words.

The first part of the book deals with the two London publishing houses (both headed by publisher Andre Deutsch) where Athill was an editor for nearly 50 years. In the second part, she talks about some of the writers that she got to know, like Mordecai Richler, Brian Moore and Jean Rhys.

I like very much that she is not afraid to say what she thinks. For example, "[Virginia] Woolf, whom I revered in my youth, now seems almost more embarrassing [than Angela Thirkell] because the claims made for her were so high. [...] and that self-consciously 'beautiful' writing, all those adjectives - oh dear!"

If you've been following my blog for a while, you probably know that I'm not often a fan of books that make the bestseller lists. Why some books with little literary merit become popular is always a bit of a mystery to me, so I was interested in what Athill had to say on the subject (in reference to V.S. Naipaul).

"It is natural that a writer who knows himself to be good and who is regularly confirmed in that opinion by critical comment should expect to become a best-seller, but every publisher knows that you don't necessarily become a best-seller by writing well. Of course you don't necessarily have to write badly to do it: it is true that some best-selling books are written astonishingly badly, and equally true that some are written very well. The quality of the writing - even the quality of the thinking - is irrelevant. It is a matter of whether or not a nerve is hit in the wider reading public as opposed to the serious one which is composed of people who are interested in writing as an art."

So, I now count myself among the serious reading public.

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