In 1980, when Charles Monteith retired, Matthew Evans became Chairman and Managing Director. The next year Robert McCrum, who had arrived in 1979 from Chatto, became Editorial Director. Though the company had advertised for a commissioning editor in the hope of revivifying its list, it still had its intimate, singular ways of making appointments. Once upon a time it was lunch with Geoffrey Faber at All Souls; McCrum found himself with a job after a Coca-Cola with Matthew Evans at the Algonquin in New York.

Despite famous examples like Lawrence Durrell and William Golding, Faber & Faber did not have much of a record as a fiction publisher. Over the next few years McCrum would put the company on the map as a publisher of novels, at what seemed to be an exciting time for new fiction.

His first discovery was Peter Carey, whose short stories had not found a British publisher. A collection of Carey’s stories was published by Faber as The Fat Man in History in 1980. The next year Introduction 7 (‘this volume launches new, young, serious prose writers’) featured three Kazuo Ishiguro short stories, never since republished. This led directly to the publication of A Pale View of Hills, which appeared in 1982. Faber’s fiction list began to take on what became its distinctive ‘literary’ appearance.

1981 had seen Peter Carey’s first full-length novel Bliss and Adam Mars-Jones’s collection Lantern Lecture. The next year, as well as Ishiguro, there was André Brink’s A Chain of Voices, and Milan Kundera’s The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. In 1983 came Mario Vargas Llosa’s Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Kundera’s The Joke, his first novel, and The Unbearable Lightness of Being and Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book.

By mid-decade there were Faber novelists almost as there were Faber poets. Now established figures were producing strong new work: Carey’s Illywhacker, Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. They were joined by Caryl Philips, with his first novel, The Final Passage, Vikram Seth with The Golden Gate and, in 1986, Garrison Keillor with Lake Wobegon Days. (Keillor had already been published in America, but not in Britain.)

A leading literary publisher: Faber, the Booker and the Nobel

Many of these novelists who were new to a British readership in the 1980s were non-British, or wrote fiction that was at a tangent to England and Englishness. Rather suddenly, the Faber fiction list had become international and, because of this, sometimes sharply political. While he was editing Faber’s fiction, Robert McCrum was also co-writing The Story of English, an historical account of English as a world language. It chimed with the globalisation of fiction now represented in the company’s fiction list.

The trend continued as the decade drew to a close. In 1987 Faber published New York Trilogy by the almost unknown American writer Paul Auster (who would publish his autobiographical ‘Chronicle of Early Failure’, Hand to Mouth, with Faber in 1997). New York Trilogy became a major bestseller. It was followed in 1989 by Moon Palace.

The glitter of the fiction list seemed confirmed when Peter Carey won the Booker Prize with Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and Kazuo Ishiguro with The Remains of the Day in 1989. (An Artist of the Floating World had been Whitbread Book of the Year in 1986.)

The company’s catalogue reflected the new importance of novels. Fiction and Paperback Fiction became separate sections; there was now a section of Faber Crime, including not just new P. D. James and Michael Dibdin, but also books by Lesley Grant-Adamson and Josef Skvorecky.

Perhaps for the first time for decades, Faber & Faber began to seem a leading literary publisher of what was new as well as a leading literary publisher of the best work of the past. As if to confirm the surprising trendiness of a company that had once had an old-school image, Faber published Adam Mars-Jones’s anthology of recent lesbian and gay fiction, A Darker Proof, in the same year (1983) in which The Who’s Pete Townsend was appointed Associate Editor with the company. He worked two days a week at the Queen Square office.

With the success of Cats behind him, Matthew Evans suggested to Townsend that he consider a musical version of Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man. Townsend and Hughes were indeed brought together, a stage version at the Young Vic followed and the film rights were sold to Hollywood.

Yet not everything changed. The Book Committee, on which Faber, Eliot and the rest had once spent those long afternoons, still existed and an editor still had to make a case before it.

Representing the continuing importance of the company’s traditions, the decade had begun with William Golding, a Faber author for over a quarter of a century, winning the Booker Prize in 1980 for Rites of Passage. In 1983 Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The importance of his association with the company was signalled by the 1984 catalogue, which included his new novel The Paper Men and had his portrait on its front cover (the first individual author to represent Faber & Faber in this way). In a different way it was signalled by the author’s dedication of this novel to Charles Monteith. As the decade ended, there was no ebbing of Golding’s energies: in 1987 he published Close Quarters and in 1989 Fire Down Below. These completed the ‘sea trilogy’ begun with Rites of Passage.

Faber’s film and television list is established

An apparently new venture towards the end of the 1980s was the publication of books on film and television. The Faber film list, at the time a novel venture, was set up by Walter Donohue at that moment in the mid-1980s when Channel 4, Goldcrest Films and others had opened up the British Film industry to new talent.

Yet Faber & Faber had a rather time-honoured interest in film and media studies. As long ago as 1933 the company published Rudolf Arnheim’s Film, and in 1934 a volume of essays called For Filmgoers Only, describing itself as an ‘Intelligent Filmgoer’s Guide to the Films’. (A group of film critics discussed cinema’s technical history, educational and political influences, and aesthetic value.) In 1935 there was Raymond Spottiswoode’s A Grammar of the Film, which pursued the ideal of providing an education in this modern medium.

In the 1950s the Faber sense of cultural seriousness embraced both cinema and television. In 1952 Faber & Faber presented Jan Bussell’s The Art of Television to readers who were imagined to be sceptical about the box in the corner of the sitting room. ‘We think it fair to warn those who have resolved not to have one in their home, that Mr. Bussell’s text may so interest them that they may change their mind.’

There had also long been some Faber television plays, and these continued. The 1980 catalogue was announcing David Hare’s Dreams of Leaving, before it had appeared on TV. In 1981 there was Trevor Griffiths’s TV play Country and in 1985 Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective. (A TV spinoff was one of the company’s commercial successes of the 1980s. Not 1982, a diary based on Not the Nine O’Clock News and published in 1981, was a huge bestseller.)

An early experiment with publishing screenplays was The Screenplays of Woody Allen in 1982. With Robert McCrum’s expansion of the fiction list, it seemed rational to publish in all areas of creative writing. The screenplay of Hanif Kureishi’s My Beautiful Laundrette, published in 1985, heralded an expansion of this genre, including other notable 80s films such as Hope and Glory, The Belly of an Architect and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Now there was a section in the catalogue called Performing Arts, to which new plays were also attached.

The drama of the early 80s had included longtime Faber author Brian Friel’s best-known work, Translations, first staged in Derry in 1980, Stoppard’s The Real Thing and Griffiths’s Oi for England. In 1986 came Alan Ayckbourn’s A Chorus of Disapproval, produced at the NT in the previous year, and Samuel Beckett’s Complete Dramatic Works.

In the late 80s plays like Stoppard’s Hapgood and Havel’s Temptation, Pinter’s Mountain Language and Hare’s Racing Demon, were advertised alongside classic screenplays (The Third ManChinatownLes Enfants du Paradis). By the end of the decade, this aspect of the company’s output was labelled Stage and Screen, with film expanding further. There was Scorsese on Scorsese, as well as books by film directors Wenders, Wajda and Tarkovsky, and more screenplays.

Faber book design: a small revolution

What other publishers and analysts of publishing most noticed in the 80s was a new attitude to publicity, epitomised in a small revolution in the approach to the design of all Faber’s books. The financial success of Cats gave the company the confidence to embark, in 1981, on a comprehensive makeover of its book jackets. The work was given to an outside design consultancy: Pentagram, under the direction of John McConnell, who himself became a board member. Pentagram would now design all jackets and paperback covers. A new look was invented for Faber books: notably the distinctive logo, a double ‘f’ ligature, and the panel of lettering that allowed for a new freedom in the use of images.

Illustrators included Andrzej Klimowski, whose cold-war collages of fragmented bodies had distinguished the covers of Kundera’s novels when they were published by Penguin. He designed many Faber covers, including once again those for Kundera’s novels and a series of appropriately disturbing images for Harold Pinter’s plays. (In 1994 the company published his own wordless graphic novel The Depository: A Dream Book.) In 1986 Faber received an RSA Presidential Award for Design Management.

The rebranding of Faber came at a time when across publishing all aspects of promotion had taken on a new importance. This included author publicity and under the aegis of publicity director Joanna Mackle the profile of Faber authors was unusually high.

‘The sheaney’s call is distinctive
as is the brilliance of its plumage.
The craine is exotic enough
to have come from another planet.
Though the plarkin
is of a great and wry beauty,
the roost is ruled
by thughes.’

Oliver Reynolds
Extract from 'On Entering the Aviary'

Faber’s poetry list under Craig Raine

The Faber poetry list kept its select status, with Craig Raine, whose own collection, Rich, would be published by Faber in 1984, as Poetry Editor from 1981. Oliver Reynolds, who published his first collection of poems, Skevington’s Daughter, with Faber in 1985 comically celebrated joining those fabulous creatures, Faber poets, in his poem ‘On Entering the Aviary’ (from the 1987 collection, The Player Queen’s Wife).

To ‘these Fabbaf species’ (‘Fabbaf’ was the cable address of Faber & Faber) were added Derek Walcott, new to Faber with his 1981 collection The Fortunate Traveller, Amy Clampitt, who published her first collection The Kingfisher with Faber in 1984, and Wendy Cope, whose first book of poems, Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, appeared in 1986.

There were new volumes from Muldoon (including Why Brownlee Left and Quoof), Heaney (Station Island in 1984) and Thom Gunn (Passages of Joy in 1981). In 1985 Douglas Dunn’s Elegies was Whitbread Book of the Year. And in 1988 Christopher Logue published a volume of his intermittent translations of Homer’s Iliad, War Music.

Meanwhile, at the suggestion of Matthew Evans, the two most famous members of the Faber aviary collaborated to edit what has probably been (because of its popularity in schools) the most influential poetry anthology of the last quarter century, The Rattle Bag (1981).

As if to confirm the sense that some of the exciting poetry and drama for which Faber & Faber had been famous since the War had now become traditional, the 1980s saw retrospective works by or about some of the best-known Faber poets and playwrights.

In 1981 there was the first instalment of John Osborne’s autobiography, A Better Class of Person (the second, equally savage and funny volume, Almost a Gentleman, appeared ten years later), Edward Mendelson’s Early Auden and Ian Hamilton’s biography of Robert Lowell. In the early 1980s there were volumes of critical essays by Seamus Heaney, William Golding and Thom Gunn. The first volume of The Letters of T. S. Eliot appeared (John Bodley had been Valerie Eliot’s trusted adviser on this), as did Frances Spalding’s biography of Stevie Smith.

There was also a collection of essays by many hands, Larkin at Sixty (1982) and a year later Larkin’s own collection of prose pieces, Required Writing. Larkin died in 1985, an event that seemed of no less public significance because he had published no new collection of poetry for more than a decade. His Collected Poems, edited by Anthony Thwaite, was published in 1988.

Faber’s non-fiction narrows

Inevitably, the range of categories across which Faber & Faber was now publishing, especially in non-fiction, was narrower than two or three decades earlier. Art and Architecture remained; Giles de la Mare, son of Richard, an editorial director from 1969 to the early 1990s, was responsible for this list, as well as for books in the fields of music, history, archaeology and biography. The books on military history, astronomy and horticulture, however, had largely disappeared, and the publications on games and cooking were dwindling (though the Faber Wine Series, which began in 1971, prospered).

In the early 1980s, Medicine and Nursing was still a significant section, though in the mid-80s it was displaced by Popular Medicine. There were a small number of controversial works on political subjects like Michael Crick’s Militant and Peter Taylor’s Stalker. Most powerful was Breyton Breytembach’s The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, his extraordinary record of seven years in South African prisons, much of it in solitary confinement.

And, at a time when academic literary criticism was notably inaccessible to the general reader, Faber & Faber remained the publisher of choice for any academic critic seeking a non-academic readership. Examples from the 80s were John Carey’s John Donne: Life, Mind and Art, Edward Said’s The World, the Text, and the Critic and Christopher Ricks’ T. S. Eliot and Prejudice. Later, Carey’s most widely discussed work, The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992), appropriately anatomised a modern tradition of English literary elitism. His Pure Pleasure of 2000, being ‘A Guide to the Twentieth Century’s Most Enjoyable Books’, was its natural sequel.

This is an extract from the essay ‘The History of Faber’ by Professor John Mullan.