A wordy cause
For a publisher that turned down Orwell and Joyce, Bloomsbury-based Faber & Faber haven’t done too badly, says Peter Gruner
18 July, 2019 — By Peter Gruner
From left: WH Auden, Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood in 1935, all published by Faber & Faber
IMAGINE waking up from a bad dream in which you are the literary editor for a top Bloomsbury-based publisher who turned down George Orwell. It happened at the firm Faber & Faber in 1944 when the editor in question was one TS Eliot. Fortunately for him, as we know, he made up for any possible errors of judgment by turning out to be one of the greatest poets of the 20th century.
In Faber & Faber: The Untold Story we are taken on an extraordinary journey through the trials and tribulations of publishing.
PG Wodehouse liked to poke fun at the name and wrote: “When Faber and Faber, the Russell Square twins, wanted a book of light essays and asked me if I had anything of the kind in my cellars, my immediate reply was: ‘Boys, I’ve got a trunkful’.”
Nothing is ever guaranteed – particularly bestsellers – and the family firm in Great Russell Street is often at the mercy of financial woe or in danger of being swallowed up by larger firms.
TS Eliot posing outside the Faber office in the 1930s
Author Toby Faber, from Dartmouth Park, grandson of founder Geoffrey, who died in 1961, delved into the archives as part of a celebration of the firm’s 90th birthday. He weaves together often moving and surprising never-before-published letters, diaries and materials for the book.
Geoffrey Faber, born in 1889, a First World War veteran, only got into publishing after failing in the brewing business. He was also a keen writer who failed to interest publishers.
His boldest move was the appointment of Eliot to the new firm in 1924.
Toby said: “Although Eliot had by this time already published much of his most celebrated poetry, including The Waste Land, I rather think Geoffrey had not heard of him. Nevertheless he liked the fact that Eliot was not only a poet, editor and critic, but also – at the time – a banker, presumably with a head for business.”
How do you judge whether a book or a writer is going to be a big success? Eliot turned down Orwell twice. First it was Orwell’s early full-length work, Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. Eliot wrote: “We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.”
Author Toby Faber, a former managing director of the firm
Then he turned down the book that went on to sell more than nine million copies, Animal Farm. Eliot was concerned the book, a political allegory, might be seen as rude about Britain’s wartime Soviet allies.
Writing to Orwell in 1944, Eliot said: “I am very sorry, because whoever publishes this, will naturally have the opportunity of publishing your future work: and I have a regard for your work, because it is good writing of fundamental integrity.”
The future book, as Toby points out, was in fact Nineteen Eighty Four published by Secker & Warburg in 1949.
Eliot also managed to turn down James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1932 for fear of prosecution by the then censorship “police”.
He wrote to Joyce: “We are advised that we should certainly be liable to prosecution and heavy penalties, with the possibility of the chairman having to spend six months in gaol…” Given a five-day deadline by Joyce, and paralysed by fear of prosecution for obscenity, the firm had to watch Ulysses go instead to Bodley Head.
Eliot did enjoy The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald “which interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years.” Sadly for him the book was already being committed to Chatto and Windus.
Faber & Faber suffered tough times in the 1970s but it was later that Eliot proved to be a real financial benefit. Toby writes: “The global success of Cats, the musical based on Eliot’s work, bankrolled the company for much of the 1980s and early 90s and prevented it from falling foul of the sort of economic downturn that beset its rivals.”
There are quirky comments, including from writers who don’t think they are being paid enough, or haven’t completed work. The company’s editorial director Alan Pringle, an obvious Philip Larkin fan, wrote to the poet in 1950 to find out what had happened to a book he was promising.
Larkin replied: “I’m afraid that the answer is simply that I have been trying to write novels and failing either to finish them or make them worth finishing.”
The second half of the 1980s is described as a “golden time” for the firm. It won the Booker Prize two years in succession, with Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day in 1989.
The following year, Faber was the first ever Publisher of the Year.
• Faber & Faber: The Untold Story. By Toby Faber, Faber & Faber, £20