Finding the Next Classic
By Megan Powell, Michael Calder, and Hannah Spruce
We talk to Rachael Williamson, to learn more about what makes a novel a classic, and to look toward the future to predict what makes a modern classic.
Rachael works at Faber and Faber as a Project Editor and describes her role as “very varied!” The main focus of [her] role is project managing books from the completed manuscript through to printing. She is responsible for commissioning copyeditors, proofreaders, indexers and typesetters – among others – to help with this. She also does a lot of in-house copyediting and proofreading of both of marketing and publicity materials as well as new forewords, short stories and extra materials for books.”
Having worked on numerous manuscripts, we asked whether she ever gets a feeling that a book might become a modern classic. At what stage of the process does this feeling come to you, or is it from the initial reading? Williamson reveals that “a lot of the books [she has] been working on have been classics. [She has] been project editing a lot of the new Faber Editions, a series of rediscovered classics. But in terms of new books, the quality of publishing at Faber is so high that [she] could see many of them becoming a modern classic. For [Rachael], the feeling can come from that first reading – if it hooks you from the start, tells you something about the world etc. – but equally it can come the more you see the book develop and be shaped into its final product.”
Novels earn the classic title based on many factors and in Williamson’s opinion “a classic needs to feel like essential reading, and needs to have that timeless feel, but this can be a hard thing to manage. Many of the classics from times gone by would absolutely not reflect the world we live in today, but that’s why they are classic literature in the first place. Classics tell us a bit about the time from when they were written in an authentic way – through commentary, language, politics and more – and I definitely think human and lived experience is a huge part of it, too.”
This sparked the classics team's curiosity of whether novels are always a product of their time and environment. Williamson agrees “though a lot of classics [she] reads are of imagined or future realities and so don’t necessarily depict the life of that time, there are still a lot of political/social/language-based things to take into account. Language and viewpoints change and evolve all the time, for example, could we say the feminism in Jane Eyre and The Handmaid’s Tale is the same? By Margaret Atwood’s time, public opinion was wildly different, and looking at feminist writers today, we’ve taken even further strides. I do think with any classic, there will always be at least an element of the time in which they were written.”
When asked which authors currently writing do you believe will one day be considered classic, Williamson lists: “Some of these authors might already be considered classic, but for me, I’d say Bernardine Evaristo, Torrey Peters, Leïla Slimani, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Stephen King, Sally Rooney.”
Having identified potential authors to be considered classics, we asked: are there any hidden gems which haven’t received their deserved exposure and will potentially become modern classics? Williamson reveals she’s “more of a ‘cult classic’ finder! Two books I’d recommend and would love to see getting more attention are Tender is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica and In the Devil’s Name by D. A. Watson. Tender is the Flesh imagines a horrifying dystopian reality where humans are farmed for food when animal meat becomes poisonous – it’s stomach churning and thought provoking in equal measure – and D. A. Watson’s novel retells Scottish folklore in one of the most unique and entertaining ways I’ve ever read.”
As someone with years of experience in the industry, we spoke briefly to Rachael about her advice for applications and getting a foot in the door. “Keep going and know and show your worth. It’s such a competitive industry, we all know this, but if this is your dream, do not give up! I can’t tell you how many times I almost did. Take the opportunity in every application to show how brilliant you are and to really explain how your unique skill set will apply to the role. We’re always told to tailor applications, and this is very important, so use that space to talk about what appeals to you about the company, which of their books you love and how your skills in particular would make you the right person for this role. My DMs are always open to publishing hopefuls!”
The classics team would like to extend a warm thank you to Rachael Williamson for her brilliant answers and advice.