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Faber & Faber: The Untold Story by Toby Faber

Updated: Jul 26, 2019

What an unlikely gem of a book. This must rank as a unique subject, being both an in depth history of a company from foundation to fortune, as well as an insight into some publishing legends. It is a selection of letters, memos, catalogues and other archive material, patched together into a series of bite sized chunks to tell a riveting story.

It would be fair to call this a trivia lovers handbook too, as it contains enough little snippets to satisfy the most avid pub quiz genius. There are insights and humour, as well as a reminder to every writer that there is an element of luck in getting your work into print.

We begin with a laugh. “If you want to make a small fortune out of publishing, start off with a large one.” But joking aside, the first few years of what was then Faber and Gwyer were hard. Most income came from publishing magazines such as The Nursing Mirror, which allowed the fledgling company to make losses on the books it published.

In an industry that today is comprised of so many amalgamated names clustered into the ownership of a mighty few, Faber and Faber stands alone in its small-time independence. It is still a company that is partly owned by its founding family, and I loved discovering that the suggestion that there were multiple Fabers involved was a fabrication. There was only one Faber, Geoffrey, and the second was added to the name simply to lend kudos. The Gwyer family were bought out, with considerable difficulty and cost, allowing the firm to pursue its own literary path. Throughout its 90 year history Faber and Faber was guided by a series of distinguished and dedicated men, most notably in its early years by the poet and writer T. S. Eliot. It was down to his influence that Faber became the renowned publisher of poetry that it is today. More importantly, it was the annual revenue generated from his book ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ on which the musical ‘Cats’ was based and which continues to earn royalties from the show, that has kept the company afloat when others were being bought up and absorbed.

While ‘Faber & Faber: The Untold story’ is rich in its historical narrative, its cabinet of literary curiosities brings the most satisfaction. These include both success and failure.

In 1944 T. S. Eliot wrote to George Orwell, complimenting him on ‘Animal Farm’ but at the same time rejecting it because it was being rude about Britain’s Soviet allies. It was unlikely that post-war events could have been seen by all, but by rejecting this book Eliot was also turning down the unwritten ‘1984’.

The novel which was to become ‘Lord of the Flies’ by William Golding was almost consigned to the literary scrap heap. It had been read and the reviewer had scribbled “Rubbish & Dull. Pointless. Reject.” on the front cover. Charles Monteith, a new young editor at Faber was short of something to read on the train to Oxford and snatched the manuscript from the top of the ‘slush pile’ that day. Had he not done so, the world might never have seen Golding’s book and he might never have gone on the win the Nobel Prize for literature. This book is full of similar stories; the famous come and go and authors are lost or gained.

Faber & Faber’s journey through the twentieth century overlapped with numerous banned books; James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and D H Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ to name but two. There was an ongoing dialogue with Joyce about the publication of his books, and sensitivity about what could be published at the time of the Lady Chatterley court case. In a letter from Charles Monteith to the writer John McGahern in 1962 he writes; “We have no objection in principle to printing the word ‘fucking’ which is used occasionally in the dialogue and I don’t think that nowadays there would be any legal risk in doing so in this country.” But he goes on the warn the author that the use of the word will impair sales in the Provinces and to libraries, and is likely to lead to a complete ban on the book in the Irish Republic.

Not only was Faber’s history linked to literary events, but also to the everyday in wartime London. They thrived and prospered in wartime, when it seems everyone was keen to read more, despite the shortage of paper, the gradual thinning of the pages and the cripplingly heavy taxation on any company profits. There is a photo taken from the roof of Faber’s building of a hole in the road outside in which an unexploded bomb is sitting. Staff would be stationed on the roof during nights of the Blitz, watching for bombs. Thankfully the buildings in Russell Square were spared from direct hits, although they had to be reinforced to withstand the shock of bomb blasts.

Faber is celebrating its 90th anniversary this year and has been trailblazing with authors such as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, William Golding, Lawrence Durrell, Seamus Heaney, Kazuo Ishiguro, Peter Carey, Harold Pinter and Philip Larkin. The editors and directors emerge as a group with a great sense of fun and love for what they were doing. My favourite letter was written by a director to his London Club in the early 1960s. It is the most humble and grovelling of letters, following an incident where other members had complained about his guest, the poet Thom Gunn. It seems that Gunn had just returned from several months in California and came to the club dressed in a fringed leather jacket and cowboy boots.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Published by Faber and Faber. RRP $45


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