Things To Look Forward To 

David Gaunt has owned Gleebooks with partner Roger Mackell since 1976.

August 2019

 - Tuesday, July 30, 2019
I first opened Toby Faber’s Faber and Faber: The Untold Story thinking, as a bookseller, that I’d find an interesting insight into how publishing really works, through a history of one of the truly iconic publishers. I did, but I found so much more—a delightful treasure trove. Toby tells the story of the firm his grandfather Geoffrey founded in 1924 through a chronological series of extracts from letters, diaries, memoranda, with his own commendably spare comments providing the links.

What a history it is. Of course there’s the poetry: Virginia Woolf never forgave Faber for stealing T S Eliot from Hogarth—by offering him job security. Early on we have Faber’s letter to Eliot, thanking him for the offer to publish The Waste Land: ‘You won’t think it unkind of me to say that I am excitedly groping in it. You are obscure, you know’. And Eliot turned out be an amazing talent-spotter—Auden, Spender, Pound, Finnegan’s Wake. A heritage continued by the legendary Charles Monteith later in the century with Hughes, Plath, Larkin, Heaney and the list goes on. Add the phenomenal Faber play list, music publishing, and a growing list of fiction (also later in the century) which included P D James, Carey, Ishiguro, Kundera, Vargas Llosa, and you’ve an idea of how high in the pantheon of literary publishers Faber ranked.

Yet the pleasure and fascination in the book comes, unexpectedly, in the quality of the writing—whether in the candour or delicacy of the correspondence between publisher and author, or in readers’ reports, or in internal dealings within the company. Threaded throughout is the sense of the precarious financial state of independent publishing. Originally ‘The Scientific Press’, publishing mainly journals and books for nurses, funded its literary forays, and the sale of that arm, as well as the Faber family trust, bankrolled its early decades (there was only one Faber, actually, but Walter De La Mere suggested that Faber and Faber was better, ‘because you can’t have too much of a good thing’).

It’s conceivable that, other tribulations and triumphs aside, the house could have failed to see the 20th Century out, bar the fabulous good fortune of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats. The astonishing success of of the musical based on T S Eliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats meant a river of gold in royalties to Faber and the Eliot estate. And who remembers Derek Llewellyn Jones’ Everywoman or John Seymour’s Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency? Both (seemingly unlikely) publications of Faber, that paid the rent through the 1980s.

But most of all, through the sheer excellence of the letter writing, we have the joy of anecdote, and recognition of the serendipity of it all. To choose but a couple: a senior publisher grabbed from the reject slush pile a first novel about which the initial reader was scathing (‘an absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the colonies. A group of children land in jungle country. Rubbish). Golding was lucky that Lord of the Flies made it. They rejected Animal Farm as too risky. And there’s a delightful apology to the Traveller’s Club for having brought the poet Thom Gunn to lunch (he wore a fringed leather jacket and cowboy boots, and the letter reminds you just how much a Gentlemen’s Club the whole industry was).

If that’s not enough to whet the appetite, this is, unsurprisingly, a beautiful book to hold, to look at, and to own—Jacket design, endpapers, typeface, photographs, and binding. Faber lives on, ninety this year, and we’re the winners. David Gaunt