A miracle in action: Diana Athill's editorial genius

Joining André Deutsch in the late 80s, I saw a great editor at the top of her game, tirelessly working to bring good writing to perfection

Independent publishing was at a dangerous moment in 1987 when I was ushered at the age of 26 into a lowly place in the publicity department of André Deutsch Ltd. But the company was flourishing. Deutsch had Gore Vidal, Molly Keane and John Updike. Penelope Lively won the Booker for Moon Tiger in my first week and the backlist-bookshelves lining the corridor to the dim publicity offices were a treasurehouse of the boldest and the best in fiction, from Don DeLillo to Jean Rhys, Jack Kerouac, Wole Soyinka and VS Naipaul. But most significant for me was the unparalleled commitment and intelligence of an editorial department led by Diana Athill.

It is hard to overstate the importance of those editors – who were almost all women – as role models in my life. Diana stands for them all. At 70, she was still working at the top of her game, her subtle gifts for precision, diplomacy, deftness and clear-sighted calm in the face of writerly impatience (or worse) quite undiminished – as will come as no surprise to anyone who knew her to be quite as sharp 30 years later. In editorial meetings she was beady-eyed and ruthless where poor writing was concerned, but also unstinting in championing writers she loved.

What struck me, though, as I got to know her – and read her own remarkable early books Instead of a Letter and After a Funeral, then largely unknown – was the courage she must have had. How long and arduous was the fight for a woman born at the end of the first world war, in the face of casual discrimination and low pay, without domestic security or professional acknowledgment, to be certain of her own fierce intellect, of her right to a voice and to make her living by it. To observe Diana and her fellow editors in the little hive of editorial offices – buried almost invisible at the heart of Deutsch – all tirelessly working away to bring good writing to perfection was, for a recent graduate in literature, to observe a kind of miracle in action. Diana stood up for forgotten writers, writers from the Commonwealth, defiers like herself of convention, and most perfectly inspiring of all, she believed in the power of the written word, had devoted her life to its service and not felt sorry for herself for a moment.

It seemed entirely natural that Diana’s own literary career flourished after her retirement. The written word had been her companion for 70 years and, when it was time for her to unpick her own inner life, she did it with peerless clarity, fearlessness, rigorous honesty and limpid intelligence. To read her was to inhabit her, to see through her eyes, and when I heard she had died it was rather like imagining my own death. That remarkable magic trick of letting the reader know what it is to be really alive in another’s consciousness is the mark of a great writer. It was such a privilege to know her.


Christobel Kent

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Diana Athill webchat: your questions answered on Jean Rhys, love affairs and turning 100
The literary editor and memoirist turns 100 in December, so she answered Guardian readers’ questions about her life, books and career

11, Dec, 2017 @3:29 PM

Article image
Diana Athill was the sharpest of wits and finest of friends | Damian Barr
The writer remembers the keen eye of a tough but inspiring editor and a warm, unshockable confidante

Damian Barr

24, Jan, 2019 @3:42 PM

Article image
Diana Athill: ‘Enjoy yourself as much as you can without doing any damage to other people’
The former editor on regrets, the advantages of old age and why she’s still writing at 100

Claire Armitstead

15, Dec, 2017 @12:02 PM

Article image
Diana Athill, writer and editor, dies aged 101
Centenarian writer and editor won acclaim for her work with authors such as Margaret Atwood and VS Naipaul, and for the sharp insights of her own books

Richard Lea

24, Jan, 2019 @8:36 AM

Article image
Rosset by Barney Rosset review – a publisher’s fight against censorship
This memoir of the American publisher of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Tropic of Cancer is full of landmark literary moments

Merve Fejzula

21, Dec, 2016 @10:00 AM

Article image
Instead of a Book by Diana Athill - review
Diana Athill's letters tackle big questions through small increments. By Alexandra Harris

Alexandra Harris

30, Sep, 2011 @9:55 PM

Article image
Sylvia Plath's bikini shot: it's time to stop sexualising a serious author to sell books | Cathleen Allyn Conway
The UK cover of a new collection of letters is only the latest to show the acclaimed poet as blond, beaming and in a skimpy outfit. But presenting female writers as mere sex symbols diminishes their literary achievements

Cathleen Allyn Conway

28, Sep, 2017 @11:25 AM

Article image
British Book awards balance art and selling power to decide best writer in 30 years
Novelists rub shoulders with presidents, chefs, comedians and thriller megastars on longlist to define the title with the biggest impact on the book world

Alison Flood

14, Feb, 2020 @6:01 AM

Article image
Who’s in charge? How Anonymous became a star in publishing | Sarah Ditum
From Secret Barristers to pseudonymous paramedics and White House moles, Anon is writing a lot of books these days – and identifying some unexpected truths

Sarah Ditum

10, Feb, 2020 @12:00 AM

Article image
‘It's the book that gave me freedom’: Michael Ondaatje on The English Patient
The novel has been translated into 38 languages and the film scooped nine Oscars. Now, as The English Patient wins the Golden Booker prize – voted readers’ favourite in 50 years – the author reveals why he could never have been a writer if he’d stayed in Britain

Aida Edemariam

09, Jul, 2018 @5:03 PM