Obituary: Liz Knights

Robert Winder
Tuesday 19 November 1996 00:02

It would be sentimental to insist that Liz Knights was one of the great publishers. All one can say with any certainty is that she would, had she lived, have become one.

As Publisher of the once- famous Victor Gollancz, she was busy presiding over something like a renaissance, refreshing and expanding a list that had lost its sheen (despite having published early novels by Angela Carter and Salman Rushdie). She galvanised colleagues, inspired authors, protected staff from the less comfortable aspects of two takeovers in three years, and produced books that made the office (even the accounts department) shiver with pleasure.

She grew up in Bromley, Kent, studied politics at York University and joined Jonathan Cape as Tom Maschler's secretary ("a trial by fire if ever there was one", said one publisher) before going to Gollancz in 1981. Three years later she became an editor, and three years after that was appointed director of Gollancz paperbacks. She became director of general publishing in 1989, and embarked on an energetic campaign of renewal. Her first brainchild, The Green Consumer Guide (1989), was one of the first coherent attempts to organise and explore the nature (and ill-nature) of British shopping. In the wrong hands it could have been a stray, cranky project. Her seal and panache turned it into a serious event: it sold half a million copies.

Probably her greatest adventure was the publication of Nick Hornby's two books Fever Pitch (1992) and High Fidelity (1995). Once again, she correctly read the runes of public opinion, imagining an audience for a football memoir at a time when football fans were not well thought of. Not everyone was so perceptive. Several publishers turned Fever Pitch down, not imagining that the life-story of an unknown Arsenal fan could be such a true and funny book. Even those who did make a play for it were brushed aside by her brook-no- nonsense enthusiasm. Some of the losers felt a frisson of annoyance (what the heck did a woman know about football, anyway?) but Knights refused to go along with the patronising notion that football enthusiasts were by definition illiterate.

Her conviction was handsomely rewarded: Fever Pitch won plaudits everywhere and sold 400,000 copies; High Fidelity, the novel that followed it, has sold 380,000 copies (so far). In the process she demonstrated that publishing - even in an age of vertically integrated mega-streamlining - came down to the same old things: judgement and resolve.

The title - Fever Pitch - was Knights's idea. She liked to tell the story of how it was arrived at: not through some flash of poetic inspiration, but through the careful sifting of alternatives. She began with a formal sense of what was required: a two-word pun. Down the left side of the page she wrote all the emotional terms; in the right-hand column she listed the football references. Had she been in a different mood that day, it is possible that Fever Pitch wuld have been called Happy Goalposts or Dangerous Penalties. Possible, but not likely. She subjected even her whims to rigorous cross-examination, sometimes with plenty of cheerful cursing.

There was no mistaking her full-throttle, unaffected nature and eagerness: they were easily visible in her animated good looks. One agent brought a hot (auctionable) property to her office not long ago, and left with the words. "That's it. I'm cancelling our other meetings - we've found our publisher."

These successes, though, were enjoyed in the shadow of cancer, which first laid siege to Liz Knights in 1991. Three times she dismissed it: when it returned with renewed ferocity a few weeks ago, she persisted in talking about it with an impatient shrug, as if she was popping in to have a tooth out. I went to see her a week ago, on the publication day of my own book, a book in which she played (of course) a big part. She was surrounded by manuscripts, and spoke excitedly about this unlikely romance, that extraordinary life story - things she had high hopes for, people she believed in. A few days later, she died. She was 41.

Robert Winder

Elizabeth Anne Knights, publisher: born Hayes Common, Kent 16 September 1955; married 1988 Ian Craig (two stepsons, one stepdaughter); died London 14 November 1996.

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