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Faber & Faber: The Untold Story

Literary figures in the Faber & Faber stable: Samuel Beckett, TS Eliot and WH Auden. Photos/Getty Images

A history of Faber & Faber proves a charming, fascinating read for much-published author David Hill.

My demands on publishers are few. I ask only for promptness, deference and gratitude (on their part, of course). Oh, and immediate acceptance.

Ah, the gulf between fantasy and reality. In fact, those publishers who’ve been obliged to deal with me have almost always been totally professional and supportive. I like them. They’re on my side.

As this engaging, decorously revealing compilation of letters, reports, minutes and even financial spreadsheets selected by the founder’s grandson shows, most of Faber & Faber’s authors have felt similar appreciation towards the almost legendary ff colophon.

Okay, not all of them. There was the infamous reader’s report on William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: “absurd and uninteresting … rubbish and dull. Reject.” There was Geoffrey F telling TS Eliot, “You are very obscure, you know.” Lawrence Durrell complained about his covers. WH Auden got furious over titles. Samuel Beckett contemptuously dismissed the suggestion of a memoir. CP Snow stalked off after a spat. The firm also turned down Paddington Bear. “Oh, well …” writes Toby F, ruefully.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

It’s intriguing to see the tone(s) adopted by celebrated names in correspondence with their publisher. Durrell was lofty; Benjamin Britten (yes, F&F published music) effusive; Philip Larkin obsessively self-deprecating. Thom Gunn and Kazuo Ishiguro both enclosed return postage in anticipation of a rejection.

The names are indeed overwhelmingly male, although Faber did bring out Sylvia Plath, Anna Burns, Barbara Kingsolver, Alison Uttley, Wendy Cope, Gwen Raverat. The firm lost Maggie Gee after a misunderstanding, and Barbara Pym after a commercial calculation.

Apart from the gender imbalance, the biggest stain on the firm’s name remains its near-craven rejection of Animal Farm, because, as TS Eliot wrote to George Orwell, it “didn’t have the right point of view from which to address the political situation at the present time”. Mustn’t offend Uncle Joe. It’s one of the few falters in an ethos of commitment and quality.

Eliot, as publisher and reader, actually comes out of this book very well. He was perceptive, diplomatic, courageous and unexpectedly warm. There’s a gloriously English letter from Geoffrey F to him. “We are both men of reserve, (but) nothing better has ever happened to me, short of my wonderful good fortune in marriage, than meeting you.” Awww.

I still find Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats stilted and laboured, though I like Eliot’s spiky little line drawings reproduced here. But the collection made a mint for F&F, and royalties from the subsequent musical kept them afloat in the 1980s.

The book starts in 1924, when Geoffrey F set up the firm after serving in the Post Office Rifles (also wondrously English) during World War I. Apart from a postscript, it ends in 1990, when the family gave up half ownership of the business.

Literary figures in the Faber & Faber stable: Sylvia Plath, Anna Burns and Kazuo Ishiguro. Photos/Getty Images and Alamy

Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man was F&F’s first hit. In the 30s, it was the publisher of English-language poetry. Through the 1950s, it agonised over whether to allow the F-word. Beckett wasn’t appreciative; he sent a hilarious list of every epithet the Lord Chamberlain had wanted removed from his pages.

There were also art books, “gardening, cookery and bridge lists”, science fiction and seminal works from “the organic movement”. It all helped keep the fim solvent – just, on some occasions. It took a big gamble and published Finnegan’s Wake, with a memorably unmemorable brown wrapper. Earlier, Ulysses had been turned down. Oh well, again.

As you’d hope, The Untold Story is a handsome production job. Lots of illustrations: covers that gradually grow from sober to sumptuous; Eliot’s office the day after his death; young authors with abundant hair, looking rebellious; distinguished authors with little hair, looking established. A joyous Ishiguro gets kissed by Mrs I as The Remains of the Day wins a Booker. There’s an excoriating spoof cover for “Sissy Books”, referencing Auden’s decision to see out World War II in the US.

And there’s a great group portrait of the British poetic pantheon. Louis MacNeice is languid on the left, Stephen Spender silvery on the right and a youthful Ted Hughes broods between them.

It’s a grab-bag; you can read through it or around in it with enjoyment. Cultured (“kulchured” in Ezra Pound’s rendering), urbane, decent voices purr down its pages. The rejections of manuscripts are so apologetic, so concerned, you want to pat the editors on the shoulder and tell them “There, there …” Chief executives in other professions could learn a few people-management lessons from the book.

Whiffs of Oxbridge, Harvard, country houses and London clubs drift through it. (Gunn caused offence by turning up to a publisher’s luncheon at one such club in cowboy boots and leather jacket.) Toby F’s own writing is affectionately stately: “… juxtapositions that I hope are not too disconcerting”.

It’s an excellent reminder of those books you must get around to reading, etc, etc. Anecdotes and incidents dominate it. But there’s also a groundswell of commitment, loyalty and the best of liberal literary and humanist values.

“It is quite something to be able to be proud of your name,” Toby F says modestly at the end, just after he’s listed the company’s Nobel, Booker, Orange and Whitbread prizewinners. I reckon my own publishers should feel a similar satisfaction.

FABER & FABER: The Untold Story, by Toby Faber (Faber & Faber, $45)

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.