The Publisher Of Greatness

The Guardian brings us an obituary notice for Matthew Evans, the influential and highly-respected publisher at Faber and Faber, who died recently at the age of 74.

Faber and Faber has long been one of Britain’s great publishing houses.  The obit gives us a list of the major talents it has sustained, but the names that stand out the most for me are T.S. Eliot and Seamus Heaney, two fine men of words in very different ways.

My simile the other day about the major publishers being whales notwithstanding, the big houses do have enormous pressure put upon them every day to do this, to be that; to give representation to everybody while maintaining a clear standard of excellence.  I am principled enough, rigorous enough, and snobby enough to believe that such a thing as a standard of excellence does exist.  It’s an ideal.  I can’t see it; sometimes I don’t feel it; but I’ve felt the standard I’d like to reach in Heaney’s poem, “Digging,” in Eliot’s essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” and–if I may throw an American writer into the mix–the essays of James Baldwin.

Having admitted that I have standards and am a snob about it, I am also egalitarian enough to believe that if anyone is motivated enough to want to write, she or he ought to have (and usually does have) the motivation to become as much a champion of the language as one’s talent will allow.  To my mind, the firm of Faber and Faber has done as good a job of nurturing talent as any of its competitors, and better than most.  Evans’ death will be a loss, but every generation eventually loses those who have shown the way.  Those who follow Evans will have to adjust their roles, and those who now lead the company will have to remember his example and his enthusiasm for the work.

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