Cover of book: Faber & Faber: The Untold Story

Toby Faber
Faber & Faber: The Untold Story

Faber & Faber always looked like the class act of British publishing. You could tell their paperbacks were just hardbacks slumming it – they even had the same superior paper and on top of that there was the myth of T. S. Eliot as the far-seeing intelligence that had given their record that touch of genius. When Philip Larkin was reporting on some launch at the Garrick, he said: “I now know what Eliot meant when he put ‘Il miglior fabbro’ on the dedication page of The Waste Land: ‘It’s better with Faber’.”

And here’s Eliot writing to the greater master himself, Ezra Pound: “If you were the sort of guy what ever admitted anything you would admit that Faber & Faber are good publishers.”

Of course they were, especially in Eliot’s heyday. Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber, the grandson of founder Geoffrey Faber, presents a kind of anthology of publishing letters, many of them by the best and brightest (though not necessarily at their most bright), emphasising in a lighthearted way the bread-and-butter business of a publishing company.

We go from the early days of Faber right up to the accession in the 1980s of Robert McCrum, who became an editor at 26 and set about publishing Kundera and Ishiguro and Peter Carey. It’s a grand enough history, though it will be of primary fascination for people with an interest in the practicalities of publishing.

Still, it’s marvellous to have the verse doodlings of James Joyce in acknowledgement of Faber publishing “Anna Livia Plurabelle”. And who could resist the addendum to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: “So if you ’ave business with Faber – or Faber – / I’ll give you this tip, and it’s worth a lot more: / You’ll save yourself time, and you’ll save yourself labour / If jist you make friends with the Cat at the Door.” And what saved Faber was the fact Andrew Lloyd Webber set those Cats to music.

Even Eliot could feel himself at least residually constrained, though there’s a wonderful moment in 1930 when he knocks back one Mrs Mackay’s book of poems:

This is sound, earnest and educated verse. Mrs M. deserves publication better than most. For this reason, all the more, I think she had better go elsewhere. I think it would be better policy for F. & F. to make a bad blunder in publishing the wrong poet, than to blur their reputation by publishing too many respectable ones …

He is forever saying to the young Auden, Spender and Louis MacNeice: not yet, let’s wait, send me more, though he does eventually publish them.

But he knocks back Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London, partly because he thinks it’s too short, partly because he thinks the two halves of the book are not sufficiently linked. He also doesn’t jump at Animal Farm, though he concedes it has a storytelling power rare since Gulliver.

Although Eliot admits to his own fascination with David Jones’s In Parenthesis, he says that its limited appeal means it can’t be published on one man’s opinion – though Faber, to its credit, went on to do so.

What stares at you from this family album of publishing fragments is the precariousness of publishing, and the strong sense Eliot and Faber had that they needed young blood.

After the war, Eliot thinks Faber’s financial prospects are dire: “Certainly, I, had I been an outside investor but with my inside knowledge, would never have dreamt of putting a penny into the business.”

Eventually they hit on Charles Monteith, who as a young unenthused barrister and war vet had written a letter to Faber, gagging for a publishing job. He gets it, and there’s the later consolidation of the list – the Beckett plays; the poetry of Hughes, Plath and Heaney; Golding’s Lord of the Flies – but even with his apparently sure touch, Monteith raises Larkin’s ire after knocking back Barbara Pym’s An Unsuitable Attachment:

… by all means turn it down if you think it’s a bad book of its kind, but please don’t turn it down because it’s the kind of book it is …This is the tradition of Jane Austen … and I refuse to believe that no one wants its successors today … It seems to me the kind of writing a responsible publisher ought to support (that’s you, Charles!).

Monteith replies that he enjoyed the book but not so much that he was willing to lose money on it. This sort of thing gets worse until someone – perhaps Matthew Evans, who became managing director in 1971 at the age of 30 – declares that Faber can’t just publish something because they think it’s good.

All of this is an eye-opener but a dispiriting one. All of these compromising people are very impressive characters.

The other side of the caper is the lack of fortune for the individual publisher. In 1987, when he was still in his 30s, Robert McCrum – whose comet-like moment at Faber is a testament to the Brits’ belief in young talent – spoke to Evans about his own diminished prospects at a time of frenzied international takeovers.

It’s medieval to expect either you or me to spend years and years creating this list and have no stake in that beyond a comparatively small monthly pay-cheque. In the past, I’ve wanted to stick around to see what could be done. Well, that’s over now. The ship is afloat. And I don’t want to be on the bridge during the cruise, if I haven’t got a stake in the ship itself.

Somewhere, just at the back of this affable ragbag of a book, there’s the shadow of how an enterprise on which civilisation partly rests became addled by a false commercialism.

In any case, thank God for Old Possum and his Practical Cats.

Peter Craven

Faber, 426pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 15, 2019 as "Toby Faber, Faber & Faber: The Untold Story".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Reviewer: Peter Craven

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on July 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.