To the literary historian, the obvious landmarks of the 90s are the achievements of long-established writers. This was, after all, the decade in which four Faber authors – Derek Walcott (1992), Seamus Heaney (1995), Wislawa Szymborska (1996) and Günter Grass (1999) – won the Nobel Prize.

It was also the decade that gave its glittering prizes to the two most famous Faber poets of the period: Heaney and Ted Hughes. In the second half of the 90s, these two won the Whitbread Book of the Year award four years in a row with Seamus Heaney’s The Spirit Level (1996), Ted Hughes’s Tales from Ovid (1997), Ted Hughes’s Birthday Letters (1998) and Seamus Heaney’s Beowulf (1999). In the public imagination, the association of the two poets not only with Faber, but also with each other, was cemented by the publication in 1997 of their co-edited anthology The School Bag, a sequel to The Rattle Bag. Heaney’s foreword readily used the first person plural pronoun, explaining that the collection was ‘a homage to poets to whom we ourselves had “gone to school” in one way or another’.

The death of Ted Hughes in 1998 was a kind of national event, as the deaths of Larkin or Auden had been in earlier decades. It was made all the more so by the publication of Hughes’s Birthday Letters only nine months before he died. It is difficult to think of a volume of poetry that has caused a comparable stir on its first appearance. There had been no advance news of the book (known in-house as ‘project x’) and, unusually in the publishing industry, all the media coverage came only once it was generally available. The critics and biographers who had long been preoccupied by the relationship between Hughes and Plath were as jolted as any ordinary reader. It was an immediate commercial as well as a critical success: 220,000 copies were sold in hardback.

Yet this bestseller was but the most celebrated work in what for Hughes, who turned 60 in 1990, was an extraordinarily productive decade. As well as his Tales from Ovid there were other translations: Lorca’s Blood Wedding, Euripides’s Alcestis and Aeschylus’s The Oresteia (the last two published posthumously). In 1992, there was his book on Shakespeare and in 1994 a collection of his occasional prose. He even wrote a new children’s book, The Iron Woman (1993). He also completed a project that embodied his own passion for poetry that lived in the ear and the memory. This was By Heart (1997), a selection of verse for learning and reciting.

Hughes’s public image might have been that of the brooding, Heathcliffean poet, but at Faber he was an affable presence. Characteristically, at a sales conference dinner in 1994, he commemorated his long relationship with the company by giving a post-prandial reading of skittish verses composed for the occasion (apparently on the train up from Devon). His ‘Ode to the Organism’ imagines the publishing firm like a pyramid of Chinese acrobats supporting the writer and his load of text. He preserves the Christian names of all the publishing acrobats, for those who will know who they are: Christopher, Jane, Matthew, Belinda, Giles, John, Janice, Helen, Ros, Joanna, Val, Katey, Lucy, Caroline. The Head of Design and Editor in Chief get surnames; all the other characters ‘clamber onto Costley and McCrum’.

Heaney too was prolific, publishing, as well as The Spirit Level and his Beowulf, Seeing Things (1991), The Cure at Troy (his version of Sophocles’s Philoctetes) in the same year, and Sweeney’s Flight (1992). Both poets return, during the same period, to Greek tragedy and Roman myth (Heaney published his own Ovidian translation, The Midnight Verdict, with Gallery Press in 1993).

It is difficult not to think that the association between Hughes and Heaney (who often gave readings together) had a direct influence on each man’s writing. Perhaps the association would have been even more public if the poets had been persuaded to follow the plan mooted by Faber Sales Director Desmond Clarke. In the 1980s he proposed that the company should take Hughes and Heaney on a helicopter trip around Britain, alighting at various points to perform their poetry. Amongst publishers and other writers the poetic helicopter tour became as widely talked of as if it had taken place.

Christopher Reid and the arrival of significant new voices in poetry

Elsewhere in Faber poetry there were volumes consolidating established reputations, including the Collected Poems of Auden, Berryman and Thom Gunn. In the first couple of years of the decade Faber published poems and essays by Miroslav Holub, Gunn’s The Man with Night Sweats, Derek Walcott’s Omeros, Christopher Logue’s Kings (the next Homeric volume, The Husbands, came two years later; the fourth, All Day Permanent Red, in 2003) and new collections from Andrew Motion and from Wendy Cope. Paul Muldoon was as prolific as Hughes or Heaney, producing MadocThe Annals of Chile and Hay during the 90s.

Christopher Reid had become poetry editor when Craig Raine left in 1991 and was willing to publish new poets in greater number than was the wont of previous editors. Amongst those who became established names during his time were Simon Armitage, whose collection Kid appeared in 1992, Don Paterson, whose first collection, Nil Nil, came out in 1993, and Lavinia Greenlaw, whose Night Photograph was also published in 1993. Armitage went on to publish Book of Matches in 1993 and CloudCuckooLand in 1997; Paterson’s second collection, God’s Gift to Women, appeared in 1997 as did Greenlaw’s A World Where News Travelled Slowly.

Strangely, two of the most noticed Faber books of the early 90s appeared, for a while, to unravel the reputation of one of the best-known Faber poets. Anthony Thwaite’s Selected Letters of Philip Larkin (1992), followed a year later by Andrew Motion’s biography of the poet, were anything but hagiographical. Motion’s book won the Whitbread Prize for biography, while journalists and academics enjoyably argued over whether good poets should only think good things. Larkin’s critical reputation has, meanwhile, endured.

The stir of other biographies belonged to their controversial subjects: Walter Isaacson’s biography of Kissinger in 1993 or Ian Gibson’s biography of Salvador Dali in 1997. But there were also lives that made scholarship popular: Jenny Uglow’s 1992 biography of Elizabeth Gaskell or her 1997 William Hogarth: A Life and a World; Fiona MacCarthy’s 1989 biography of Eric Gill (whom Faber & Faber had published over half a century earlier) and her 1994 William Morris. Strikingly, in catalogues of the late 90s, Biography owed much to cinema: there were lives of Spielberg, Fritz Lang, Joseph Losey, John Wayne and Lee Marvin. Film was one of the new growth areas.

Goodfellas to Pulp Fiction – a golden time for Faber’s film list

Through the 90s, the company published an increasing number of screenplays. These charted the critical hits of the decade, from Kieslowski’s Decalogue and Scorsese’s Goodfellas to Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, and The Usual Suspects, Crash and Breaking the Waves. The Faber screenplay of Quentin Tarantino’s 1994 hit Pulp Fiction became a publishing phenomenon when it sold in quantities comparable to a successful novel (¼ million copies in the UK). Now, in 2004, there are Faber collected screenplays (of Cronenberg, Schrader, the Coen brothers, and others) as there have long been collected plays or poems.

In the tradition of Sergei Eisenstein’s The Film Sense, which Faber & Faber had published in 1943, there were also books that gave a voice to cinema’s writers and directors: David Mamet’s On Directing Film (1992) or Satyajit Ray’s My Years with Apu (1997). In 1997 Martin Scorsese published A Personal Journey Through American Movies.

There was also a series that collected directorial interviews and writings, Lynch on Lynch or Cronenberg on Cronenberg. And there were traditional testimonies from great figures of cinema, Jean Renoir’s Letters or Milos Forman’s memoirs. The commitment to film was represented by the first edition of the series Projections, in which film-makers wrote about film-making. It was devised by long-time collaborators Walter Donohue and film director John Boorman. Boorman had been associated with the company since its publication in 1985 of Money into Light, his diary of the making of his film The Emerald Forest.

Faber Drama publish hits by Stoppard and Pinter

Cinema was perhaps in the 90s what drama had been in the 70s. The outstanding new plays of the period were from writers who were familiar from school syllabuses as well as the theatre. So in 1993 the two striking additions to the drama list were Harold Pinter’s Moonlight and Tom Stoppard, Arcadia, both recent hits on the stage. Stoppard had also published The Invention of Love, while Pinter would go on to produce Ashes to Ashes.

Other new Faber plays from established names were Alan Ayckbourn’s Things We Do for Love, Christopher Hampton’s version of Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People and Simon Gray’s Fat Chance and Cell Mates (the latter given unlooked-for publicity when Stephen Fry ‘disappeared’ as it was opening in London). In 1994 John Osborne, the playwright who had set the drama list going – and revivified British drama – back in 1956, died. That year Faber published his Collected Prose.

From Mozart to Joy Division

Through the 80s and 90s, the music list remained at the forefront of music books publishing, especially in its coverage of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Notable titles since have included the Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten (1991), Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Britten (1992), Donald Mitchell’s three-volume Mahler biography (1958/1975/1985), Elizabeth Wilson’s Shostakovich: A Life Remembered (1994) and The Glenn Gould Reader (1987), alongside the letters of such composers as Bartók, Berg, Berlioz, Janácek, Schoenberg and Stravinsky.

From the 90s, the list developed to include books of more general interest such as Humphrey Burton’s biographies of Leonard Bernstein and Yehudi Menuhin, Nicholas Kenyon’s Simon Rattle, and Antony Beaumont’s edition of the diaries of Alma Mahler-Werfel, lover of Gustav Klimt, wife of Mahler and Walter Gropius. There were further collections of the letters of great composers: Shostakovich, Toscanini, Walton and Mozart. Reaching out to a non-specialist readership were books like Richard Morrison’s Orchestra and, a bestseller, Why Beethoven Threw the Stew, a work for children by the international cellist, Steven Isserlis.

In 1990 The Faber Companion to 20th Century Popular Music signalled the company’s interest in popular music, made apparent to writers by Pete Townsend’s presence at Faber. It was followed by Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming (1991), a celebrated and bestselling history of punk music and the late 1970s. The Faber Book of Pop was edited by Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage in 1995, the same year that Faber published Deborah Curtis’s Touching from a Distance, a memoir of Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, written by his widow. Other notable pop music publications have been Charles Shaar Murray’s Crosstown Traffic and Brian Eno’s diary, A Year with Swollen Appendices.

Ishiguro, Kundera, Auster and Carey add to Faber’s expanding fiction list

In the 90s, some of the new types of Faber book would have been unrecognisable to the first directors, yet from a distance you can see the connections with tradition. Popular psychiatry and psychoanalysis seemed to have inherited the former interest in popular medical texts. Adam Phillips published his first collection of essays, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored, in 1993, and there were other examples, from Thomas Stuttaford’s In Your Right Mind to Lewis Wolpert’s Malignant Sadness.

Equally, the company’s sometimes quirky anthologies look back to the eccentric compilations of former days. Roy Porter’s Faber Book of Madness was followed by Faber books of London, Espionage, Theatre, and Movie Verse. Faber Books of Reportage and Science, both edited by John Carey, have been the most successful and long-lived. The bestseller of the decade was an entirely individual compilation, Alan Bennett’s Writing Home (1994).

The first half of the 90s saw the continuing development of the novelists who had made Faber’s name for fiction in the 80s: Kundera (Immortality, Slowness), Carey (The Tax InspectorThe Unusual Life of Tristan Smith), Auster (LeviathanMr Vertigo), Keillor (Radio RomanceThe Book of Guys).

Michael Dibdin had had his first major success in 1988 with Ratking, which introduced his stylish literary detective Aurelio Zen. Now he pursued his investigations through murky Italy in Cabal and Dead Lagoon. Novelists introduced to the Faber list in the 90s included Rohinton Mistry, whose first novel was Such a Long Journey in 1991 (followed by A Fine Balance in 1996), Barbara Kingsolver, who published Pigs in Heaven in 1993 and The Poisonwood Bible in 1999, and Mavis Cheek, whose Sleeping Beauties appeared in 1996. The first novel that appeared with the most éclat was by a well-known writer: Hanif Kureishi’s 1990 modern bildungsromanThe Buddha of Suburbia.

Kureishi’s novel became better known (and more controversial) through a subsequent television dramatisation. He published more fiction through the 90s, notably Intimacy in 1998. Past Booker winners Kazuo Ishiguro (with his 1995 The Unconsoled) and Peter Carey (with his 1997 Jack Maggs) produced new work that experimented with narrative technique alongside an influx of new writers.

The decade saw the first novels of Giles Foden (The Last King of Scotland), Andrew O’Hagan (Our Fathers) and Tobias Hill (Underground). In 2000 John Lanchester came to Faber with his second novel, Mr Phillips. One of the major novelists new to the Faber list was Michael Frayn, whose Headlong was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999. His second Faber novel, Spies, was Whitbread Novel of the Year in 2002 and, to the delight of journalists, was pitted head-to-head against his wife Claire Tomalin’s biography of Pepys for the overall Whitbread Prize.

Structural changes at Faber: new and old live side by side

At the end of the decade, P. D. James reflected on her life of writing in her memoir Time to be in Earnest. Her 1994 novel Original Sin had already paid a compliment to its author’s long relationship with Faber & Faber by obtruding the company’s chairman into her dark plot (as he had been at school with her daughters, he had had an even longer relationship with the novelist). The ruthless Gerard Etienne has just taken over a long-established London publishing firm (no relation) when he is murdered on the premises. Could it be a rejected author? As apparently shocked colleagues gather to meet Adam Dalgliesh the phone rings. ‘It’s Matthew Evans’s secretary from Fabers, Miss Etienne,’ the receptionist announces. ‘He wants to talk to Mr Gerard. It’s about Wednesday’s meeting on literary piracy.’ The murdered man’s sister takes the phone. ‘Please tell Mr Evans I’ll ring him back as soon as I can . . . Tell him Gerard Etienne is dead. I know he’ll understand that I can’t speak now.’ ‘There’s no point in trying to cover it up, is there?’ she asks Dalgliesh rhetorically. There are evidently to be no secrets from the Faber supremo.

Matthew Evans was still Chairman and Managing Director when James’s whodunit was published. In 1995, however, Toby Faber, Geoffrey Faber’s grandson, joined the firm as Evans’s assistant and the next year became Managing Director, with Evans stepping back to be Chairman alone. In his five years in the post, Toby Faber made important changes to the business, including the restructuring of the company’s distribution system and the sale of the company’s American branch, Faber Inc., to Farrar Straus.

Other arrivals included that of Jon Riley, appointed Chief Editor in 1996. When Charles Monteith died in 1995, there was a sense conveyed in obituaries and newspaper articles that a literary tradition of publishing had gone with him. Yet the connection of Faber & Faber with its past remained. T. S. Eliot’s widow Valerie Eliot had always been closely interested in the company, particularly as the representative of the Eliot estate. The success of Cats enabled her to help ensure that Faber kept its independence. In 1990 she became a director and she would eventually come to own half the company. She also launched, in 1993, the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry, in memory of her husband, donating the prize money of £10,000 per year.

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