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 Andre 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 withLake 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.