Friday, March 07, 2008
In Memorian: Austin Olney
We here at Stevereads pause to mourn the death of Austin Olney, a forty-year Boston fixture at Houghton Mifflin and one of the last of the great breed of old-fashioned editors now endangered by the crotch-scratching simian hordes of Wiki-morons flinging their own poo at every literary venue in the modern world. For forty years, Austin helped to hold back this tide, and the literary world will be forever in his debt.
No doubt modest tributes will flow in their due course - Austin was, very reluctantly, something of a legend, having worked with authors as varied as Tolkien and "Curious George" creator Margaret Rey - and we must only hope that some of them capture the quiet genius of the man.
He could see possibilities in even the most wretched piece of prose, and he lived to believe in writers, taking real, personal joy in helping them to identify and then improve their own writing styles. More than one writer under his tutelage came to realize that he supported them more passionately and persistently than their nearest and dearest often did. He had a priceless gift for spotting untapped potential.
Of course, it helped that he was enormously intelligent, with a range of interests so vast and varied that it would have been intimidating in another man, a man less willing to put it all at the disposal of any who needed it. His edits on a manuscript were as urbane, as well-informed, and as witty as the man himself. Writers would get back pages literally covered in corrections, and yet they wouldn't feel corrected - only thrilled and honored at being the subject of such high-quality, focused attention.
(The funny grace of those edits was instantly memorable; in one author's manuscript, an unbelievably verbose character elicited this comment: "He's awfully chatty, isn't he? If I were him, I'd worry I was boring people." Relaxed and friendly - but the author got the point)
Words were his passion (he was an early and vocal advocate of The American Heritage Dictionary, for instance, rightly calling it the greatest dictionary ever made), but words of course feel inadequate to honor his life and quiet labors. He'd have looked over this entry and laughed quietly. "Oh my," he'd have said, "all that, for me? Let's see if we can prune a bit, hmm?"
But in this case we're letting it stand.