Tuesday 25 June 2019

The making of a literary publishing powerhouse

Non Fiction: Faber & Faber, The Untold History of a Great Publishing House

Toby Faber, Faber & Faber, €20

Faber & Faber, The Untold History of a Great Publishing House
Faber & Faber, The Untold History of a Great Publishing House
Faber and Faber logo

Paul Perry

This fine book tells an intriguing story of how the now eminent publisher emerged between the wars to become one of the most important literary presses in modern history.

Faber authors constitute a roll-call of great writing, and this narrative 'history' is made up almost exclusively of a selection of letters between management, editors and authors giving us an insight into the operations of a publishing house which discovered, and nurtured some of the most recognisable names of 20th Century literature in English. Toby Faber, the grandson of founder Geoffrey Faber, introduces each chapter and offers occasional asides. In his introduction, he tells us it was his aim to "cut out the boring bits".

TS Eliot is a central figure in this compendium, a guiding force who championed so many writers. His shrewd business acumen, and savvy talent-scouting, as well as his arch humour are much on display. Each chapter deals with part of, or a full decade from the company's beginnings in the 1920s. This 'history' ends in the 1990s when the Faber Group sold 50pc of its shares.

Let me shine a light on some highlights of those 90 years. There is the rejection of George Orwell's Animal Farm communicated by TS Eliot. He writes the directors have "no conviction that this is the right point of view from which to criticise the political situation at the present time". There's William Golding's typescript Strangers From Within which one Faber reader described as "absurd and uninteresting" - only to be pulled from the slush pile and retitled Lord of The Flies. There's also a good deal of discussion between John McGahern on whether the word 'f**k' will be removed from his first novel The Barracks.

Heaney, Muldoon, Ted Hughes (Faber weren't sure whether he was American or not, at first) are all to the fore, though it's also impossible not to notice the very male world publishing once was.

Some female authors are championed. Djuna Barnes stands out, and Anna Faber, Geoffrey Faber's daughter, after an accident, was encouraged to work at Faber by her father, but never made her mark as an editor due to the "prevailing gender attitudes".

Toby Faber describes the process of reading from the Faber archive as akin to eavesdropping on the arguments and conversations which sustained a business, though an index would have been really useful. It's that type of book where you can dip in and out every so often. I sometimes found it hard to track down correspondence I wanted to reread. There's a fair share of Nobel winners, including Samuel Beckett, as well as the more precarious side of the publishing business, 'cash problems', and during World War II, we read 'Russell Square survived last Saturday's raid.'

All in all, Faber & Faber lends a glimpse into the complex journey of how a book finds its way onto the bookshelves.

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