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Macavity was there

Faber & Faber: The Untold Story, by Toby Faber, Faber & Faber, 448 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-0571339044

Some years after the death of the author, Nobel laureate TS Eliot’s collection of poems for children, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, drew the attention of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cats the musical became one of the most successful productions in the history of London’s West End. This adaptation of the work of an arch-modernist by a master of popular entertainment would be the unlikely financial saviour of Eliot’s employer and publisher, England’s most prestigious literary press, whose reputation the poet had done so much to establish.

This note, written in 1930 by Eliot to the rest of the Faber & Faber “book committee”, sums up the company’s attitude to poetry in its first few decades:

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.

Eliot’s endorsements, on the other hand, could sum up the modernist literary ethos itself, as in this assessment of Djuna Barnes’s novel Nightwood:

I believe that this may be our last chance to do something remarkable in the way of imaginative literature. … There is something an author does once (if at all) in his generation that he can’t ever do again. We can go on writing stuff that nobody else would write, if you like, but The Waste Land and Ulysses remain the historic points. … My feeling is that this book is very likely to be the last big thing to be done in our time.

In 1927 Geoffrey Faber, then of Faber and Gwyer, asked his colleague Tom Eliot to be godfather to Tom, his son. It was a few years before Geoffrey extricated his own name, and then doubled it. The sort of Oxford don who would escape to his holiday home in rural Wales to shoot a bit of game and knock out a history of Anglo-Catholicism, Geoffrey nevertheless possessed an impressive business acumen, and he felt Faber & Faber would make a good brand name despite there being no other Faber involved in the company. But perhaps his most astute move of all was to recruit into his company and his personal life Eliot, a bank clerk and author best known for a strange long poem called The Waste Land (Geoffrey to Eliot: “You are obscure, you know! … I wonder if you know how difficult you are? And alternatively I wonder if I am specially stupid”; Geoffrey to Gwyer: “As for Eliot’s poems I don’t like them myself, and I don’t think Eliot does either.”)

As well as benefiting Faber’s publishing policy with his exceptional gifts, TS Eliot delighted Tom Faber with his godfatherly attentions, especially with letters about his cat:

I am glad you have a case only if you come to see Me we Must be careful not to get them mixed up, because Mine has Tom on it Too. I am glad you have a Cat, but I do not believe it is So remarkable a cat as My cat. My Cat is a Lilliecat Hubvously. What a lilliecat it is. There never was such a Lilliecat.

This correspondence, literarily interesting in its way, led to the suggestion that Eliot might compose a collection of poems for children about cats. As a children’s publisher myself I am acutely sensitive to how children’s writing is often scorned by man-of-letters types, and so I am charmed by this literary leviathan’s doubts about whether his talent was up to the task of writing for young readers: “I am more and more doubtful of my ability to write a successful book of this kind … this sort of thing is flatter if it is flat, than serious verse can be.” Nonetheless Eliot completed what became Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and thereby in the most unlikely way secured the long-term financial future of Faber & Faber via the royalty the company would earn on Webber’s stage adaptation.

This book, a selection from the archives of Faber & Faber made by Geoffrey’s grandson Toby, is among other things a testament to how Eliot, an American anglophile and singular genius, shaped the company’s editorial policy, and thereby twentieth century English literary taste. He was instrumental in Faber & Faber acquiring its reputation as the serious, progressive British literary publisher par excellence – laurels which the company has had for an ottoman ever since. This image was often bemoaned by members of the board more concerned with the bottom line than the top drawer. Geoffrey lamented of the term “highbrow”: “It is extraordinary how quickly that sort of thing becomes a label – one of those sticky labels which it takes a lot of time and effort to scrape off.” Nonetheless the press still trades strongly on this reputation as other trusted literary imprints have been diluted by their absorption into hedge-fund-controlled conglomerates.

That Faber has managed to remain independent in the era of mergers and acquisitions is also due in part to Eliot’s posthumous beneficence. Not only did Webber’s musical ensure the survival of the press during lean years – even in the brash 1980s when Private Eye dubbed the company “Fabber and Fabber”, what with The Who guitarist Pete Townsend on its editorial board and directors who insisted that selling a book was no different from selling a pack of tissues (“it’s all commodity”), the press would have struggled to turn profit except for the roaring success of Cats – it also enriched Eliot’s widow, Valerie. In 1989, after years in which it seemed inevitable that Faber would be devoured by Pearson or one of the other publishing behemoths, a new structure was announced whereby Valerie held shares amounting to half the company. The other half resided with an entity controlled by the Faber family. This arrangement has made Faber & Faber effectively impossible for the large beasts to swallow. And so Eliot’s influence, via the West End, on the press that made an obscure and difficult American poet into a British literary tastemaker extended even into the ownership structure of the company.

At this point, with the independence of his family’s business seemingly secured, Toby Faber concludes his history. After following the press’s fortunes for 400 precarious pages, the reader may breathe a sigh of relief to see the ship enter more placid waters. It must be said, however, that this plucky survival story might have gone differently if the principal players hadn’t been drawn from the ranks of the British establishment – being a member of the same gentleman’s club as the bank manager has its uses. In fact several of the protagonists came from the most elite institution in the most elite institution in Britain: Oxford’s All Souls college.

Many of the colleges of Oxford university are surrounded by fortified walls with battlements and arrow slits. These days the military defences are lax but bowler-hatted porters act as gatekeepers protecting the untreadable quadrangle lawns from the public. None is so impenetrable for the commoner as All Souls, the college without any students. Even today its bizarre entrance exam features questions such as “Does the moral character of an orgy change when the participants wear Nazi uniforms?” (from 2010) and, as the rumour goes, an interview round in which the most important challenge is to manage seemly dealing with a seed cake while speaking. The founding of All Souls is commemorated by a procession of the fellows behind a leader who holds a pole with a wooden duck on top, a reference to a duck’s nest which was disturbed by the building of the foundations; this is a ritual which is routinely carried out once every hundred years.

It was in this rarefied, cloistered clique that some of the chief gatekeepers of twentieth century English literature mingled. Maurice Gwyer, publisher of The Scientific Press, was an All Souls fellow; when a fellow fellow resigned as chairman of the company, Maurice appointed another fellow, Geoffrey Faber, to replace him. After the split from Gwyer, Faber would try to get a fellowship for Eliot, going so far as to hide the college’s copy of The Waste Land in case anyone read it and got the idea the author was some sort of weirdo. This was unsuccessful, but some years later when a new senior staff member was wanted to inject some youthful energy into the company, Geoffrey invited in yet another All Souls colleague.

Entrenched as it was in this peculiarly British elite environment, it is unsurprising that as it developed Faber & Faber, though undoubtedly courageous, radical and artistically ambitious, reflected and perpetuated some of the iniquities of British society. Toby Faber is critical of that fact that the company’s management and its list of authors were heavily male-dominated. It goes without saying that the list was also skewed towards white authors from the higher parts of England’s arcane class structure, especially in the earlier years when titles included the likes of Spain in a Two-SeaterMemoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man and They Want their Wages.

Nonetheless, while the advantages of class privilege can provide a leg up, or several very long legs, the press could not have survived at the very top for ninety years it weren’t for the consistent, unwavering and courageous application of sound publishing principles: the prioritisation of literary quality; preference for the bold and experimental above the merely accomplished; and the privileging of editorial talent ahead of any other (Geoffrey Faber: “I have no intention, so long as I remain Chairman, of subordinating my judgement to that of any financial expert.”) Even when the Faber editors were wrong, they were right: Down and Out in Paris and London really does lack a satisfying structure; the best part of A Bear Called Paddington is probably the title.

Smart business decisions at important moments were also crucial, and the book is a reminder to anybody in the publishing industry that shrewd strategic thinking as well as nerve, endurance, tough-mindedness and other such unsexy attributes are vital accompaniments to creative flair and sharp editorial vision. So too is flexibility, and as well as maintaining some profitable imprints apart from its main list, the press has never been shy of taking on straightforwardly commercial prospects so long as they didn’t stray too far from its core output ‑ book accompaniments to TV satires Spitting Image and Not the Nine O’Clock News, and a popular medicine book about gynaecological health were big sellers which would have had some overlap in readership with Faber’s more austere literary publishing.

At the risk of this review becoming too “insider baseball” I will mention that the book makes clear how Faber & Faber’s relatively early decision to integrate paperback publishing alongside hardback, and to do both themselves rather than farm out the paperbacks, was an important move made at a time when revenue had been stagnating for some years. From the vantage of the present this seems an obvious decision to have made, but not every literary publisher had the foresight to see how paperback would become the dominant format. The surprising commercial success of Anna Burns’s Booker-winning Milkman in 2019 – sales have been extraordinary even for a Booker winner –probably has something to do with the paperback having been available at the time of the award.

Today a number of admirable small independent literary presses operate in Britain, despite the increasing dominance of the market by large conglomerated entities. It falls to these presses to perform much of the heavy lifting when it comes to inculcating progress in the literary publishing world, and they will often take risks on artistically ambitious authors who may later be poached by larger competitors. From their point of view, Faber hardly counts as an “indie” or any kind of plucky underdog. Yet any small publisher would do well to study Faber’s history. The crucial Cats episode, of course, isn’t something that can be easily emulated, being largely a tremendous stroke of luck. Yet even there there are lessons: recruit talented people (Eliot); make bold commissions (asking the author The Waste Land to write light verse for children); and, whenever you can, retain the full suite of rights pertaining to adaptations of anything you publish.


Matthew Parkinson-Bennett is publisher at Little Island Books, an independent Irish publisher of books for children and teenagers. If you are Andrew Lloyd-Webber, please give him a call.



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