A Certain Style

Jacqueline Kent


'Tracking changes: Jacqueline Kent on A Certain Style' orignally published on Books+Publishing

Seventeen years after A Certain Style was first published, Jacqueline Kent’s biography of Australia’s first full-time book editor Beatrice Davis is being reissued for a new generation of publishing aficionados. Kent spoke with former UQP nonfiction publisher Alexandra Payne about what’s changed in the editing profession since Davis’ time.

It’s wonderful to see A Certain Style back in print, updated and with a new introduction that contrasts the present with Beatrice’s time. What would Beatrice make of the current state of Australian publishing?

I think she would be both bemused and horrified. She never had to deal with computers in any form, so the fact that a book can now go from the mind of its author—through all the editing and checking processes—right to the printer without touching paper at any stage would be totally foreign to her. Though she knew that publishing had to be commercial, involving a great deal of what she called ‘roast and boil prose’, she would have deplored today’s emphasis on sales and marketing. In her view, knowing what should be published was the job of the editor. I don’t know how she’d go in 2018!

Having said that, there is one thing that she would absolutely recognise today: the process of working with an author. Quite a lot of A Certain Style is about Beatrice’s relationships with her authors, whether amicable or not, and much of it would be familiar to anyone working in publishing today—or, probably, to anyone who has ever edited anyone else’s work. That certainly hasn’t changed, and the relationship between author and editor is still a vital aspect of today’s book publishing landscape.

You say that Beatrice elevated editing from a ‘schoolteacher’s skill’ to a craft. Has the process and craft of editing changed much since her time?

Essentially, no, I don’t think so. Author and editor still work together to ensure that the best possible book can be produced, given the constraints of time and money. Today’s editors might not necessarily think that Fowler’s Modern English Usage and the Shorter Oxford Dictionary are the ultimate arbiters of taste and correctness, and as I have said technology is different, but the personal aspects are basically the same.

On publication of your first book, Beatrice said to you, ‘You’re an editor. Editors do not write books.’ You continue to both edit and write—do you believe the two can coexist successfully?

I’m not going to say no, am I? And here are a few more names: Sophie Cunningham, Jane Gleeson-White, Phillipa McGuinness, Craig Munro, Angelo Loukakis …

In my own case, editing—working on words that already exist—is usually easier. I’ve taken a long time to feel comfortable separating editing and writing, being able to squash the small, nasty editorial creature on my shoulder that says, ‘No, that’s not good, there’s a better way of saying this’, which can be absolutely paralysing. That voice is still there, and it’s necessary, but I think I’m a bit better at using it these days.

Beatrice said to Xavier Herbert, ‘Publishing is my game, my way of life.’ To me this seems to be an enduring reason for why people remain in publishing; why do you think that is?

People do tend to stay in publishing, don’t they? Or leave and come back. For those of us who love books, who love words, it’s one of the few areas where we can indulge our passions. Book publishing is such a personal business.

A personal question then—do you see any of Beatrice in yourself?

There were times during the writing of A Certain Style when I did feel I was catching Beatrice’s eye in a glance of fellow-feeling, especially in the chapters dealing with certain authors. I recognise a great deal about her job and how she did it, and I also have a nodding acquaintance with the kinds of office politics that plagued Angus & Robertson. Beatrice had some qualities I admire greatly: her refusal to make a fuss about things in life she couldn’t change, for example, not to mention her realism and acerbic wit. But Beatrice’s taste in literature is not necessarily mine, and though I wouldn’t mind having a nice house by Sydney Harbour and holding elegant dinner parties for favoured guests, that’s not exactly my style.


The new edition of A Certain Style: Beatrice Davis, A Literary Life (Jacqueline Kent, NewSouth) will be published in September. Kent’s memoir, Beyond Words: A Year with Kenneth Cook (UQP) will be published in February 2019