The Way They Were
A friend deliberately gave me 'Stet. An Editor's Life' (2000) – by the veteran editor Diana Athill – thinking perhaps that as I am now trying to find a UK publisher for a new novel, I'd be curious to see the world from a UK publisher's point of view. How right that friend was: 'Stet' is a smashingly written chunk of autobiography by a woman who worked in publishing throughout the second half of the last century. Apart from its acute takes on life in general and its astonishing yet snide-free anecdotes about certain occasionally repulsive star authors, Athill's book is a reminder – as she herself admits - of just how much British publishing has changed over the years. She worked mainly for André Deutsch Ltd., a medium-sized company which used to cover all the bases, from children's books through to vocational best-sellers like Peter Benchley's 'Jaws', and which specialised, above all, in what would now be called literary fiction. For decades, Athill explains, they were thrilled to get typescripts from unknown writers, in the hope that they might find something exciting, which they often did (they were the first publishers of V.S Naipaul, Jean Rhys, John Updike, Timothy Mo...). Today, the very idea of a publisher even replying promptly to, say, an unknown writer's unsolicited email is so unlikely you couldn't put it in a novel. Perhaps because the new norm – in a publishing world which now caters, Athill dixit, almost exclusively to that majority of the reading public which wants entertainment both pure and especially simple - is not to read an unknown writer's MS at all. Not only did the folk at André Deutsch read unknowns with gusto, they, unusually, also published a wide range of foreign writers. Just how wide, I had forgotten until I came to the page where Athill recommends five non-English books she published which have become largely forgotten must-haves, including: 'Merce [sic] Rodoreda's The Pigeon Girl. An extremely moving love story translated from the Catalan...'. This was, in fact, the very first Catalan novel I read (my Catalan was too broken back then for me to read the original Plaça del Diamant). I was so impressed by it, I phoned up Penguin Books and asked them if they might be interested in including it in their Modern Classics series. They eventually told me – this was in 1979, some 11 years after it was published in English – that they couldn't locate a copy. But hey, at least they replied.
Matthew Tree, Catalonia Today, setembre de 2012