Why Old Editors Write Books

Diane Athill, a British editor, on why she decided to write the book Stet: An Editor’s Life. A literary editor, Athill worked with Margaret Atwood, Jean Rhys, Philip Roth, Norman Mailer, John Updike, Mordecai Richler, Simone de Beauvoir, and many other authors.
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Why am I going to write it? Not because I want to provide a history of British publishing in the second half of the twentieth century, but because I shall not be alive much longer, and when I am gone all the experiences stored in my head will be gone too—they will be deleted with one swipe of the great eraser, and something in me squeaks ’Oh no—let at least some of it be rescued!’. It seems to be an instinctive twitch rather than a rational intention, but no less compelling for that.

By a long-established printer’s convention, a copy-editor wanting to rescue a deletion puts a row of dots under it and writes ‘Stet’ (let it stand) in the margin. This book is an attempt to ‘Stet’ some part of my experience in its original form.

Other people have given better accounts of our trade (notably Jeremy Lewis in Kindred Spirits, which is not only a delight, but also says everything which needs saying about what has happened to publishing, and why). All this book is, is the story of one old ex-editor who imagines that she will feel a little less dead if a few people read it.
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Stet was published in 2000 by Grove Press; it was a New York Times notable book of the year. In December, Athill will be 98.

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