Nonfiction Review: “Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux” By Boris Kachka

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Book publishing ain’t what it used to be.

In another era, before mergers and takeovers, before Kindles and e-books, publishing was known as the gentlemen’s profession. It was an industry where the staff took care of its most precious cargo—the authors. Perhaps no other New York publishing house better represents this world than Farrar, Straus and Giroux, among the most influential publishers of the modern era.

At its heart, though, “Hothouse” is the tale of two very different men. Boris Kachka, a regular contributor to New York magazine and other publications, tells the story of the august house through the perspective of two of its founders: Roger Straus and Robert Giroux. Both men were opposites. Straus, of German-Jewish heritage, was a paradoxical combination of charm and vulgarity. He was also a born entertainer—a showman with a preference for ascots, camel-hair coats and Mercedes convertibles. Giroux, on the other hand, was reserved and taciturn, a stoic presence who kept his feelings to himself except for the occasional outburst.

Straus and Giroux published what they believed to be the best books available. They were, writes Kachka, “aristocrats of taste in a mercenary meritocracy.” FSG was, in other words, “the hottest house in New York.” And yet for much of its history, it was located in then-unglamorous Union Square, sandwiched between traditional Midtown and bohemian Greenwich Village.

FSG did things a particular way. First, the editors cultivated relationships with authors, then they developed a mystique surrounding that author before creating the “perfect” book and then, if they were lucky, sales would follow—eventually. Their stable of writers included John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, Joseph Brodsky, Joan Didion, T.S. Eliot, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, Jack Kerouac, Robert Lowell, John McPhee, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Philip Roth, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Scott Turow, Edmund Wilson and Tom Wolfe, among many others.

Susan Sontag was a long-time FSG author but she also read manuscripts for the firm and recommended authors who were then unknown to the editors (such as Walter Benjamin). She was also a consultant and overall confidant (other FSG writers, including Edmund Wilson, Carlos Fuentes, Tom Wolfe, and Joseph Brodsky, fit this role too). In fact, the “care and feeding” of Sontag, to employ Straus’ phrase, was an important part of the way the house did business. The publishers were loyal to her, and she in turn was loyal to them. Consider: FSG received and sorted her mail while she was often away in Europe, took care of her apartment, and even paid her bills—“sometimes even her rent and Diners Club card,” notes Kachka.

But even as far back as 1964, publishing was changing. Straus himself saw the writing on the wall. “It seems to me that once more the face of publishing in America is going to change,” he once wrote, fearing that the future of medium-sized independent publishing houses such as FSG would soon be a thing of the past.

Kachka covers all the major events in FSG’s history. In May 1986 Straus brought Jonathan Galassi to FSG from Random House to acquire “class-mass” books; that is, respectable books with strong commercial potential. (Galassi didn’t actually start working at FSG for several months though because the then-struggling house did not have enough money in the coffers to pay him.) Before long, FSG books had reached the New York Times bestseller lists: Turow’s “Presumed Innocent,” Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” to name just two; Galassi would eventually become publisher. And yet despite the bestsellers, Straus, concerned about the firm’s financial future, was looking further down the road. In March 1994 he sold the house to the German billionaire Georg von Holtzbrinck. Two years later FSG celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in grand style with a reading of poetry and prose at New York’s historic Town Hall building.

In this inside look at the New York publishing world, Kachka writes entertainingly too about the great books that got away, including J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road.” His juicy account of the war of words between Jonathan Franzen and talk-show-queen Oprah Winfrey after Winfrey chose Franzen’s “The Corrections” as the pick of her Book Club, and the subsequent backlash against Franzen by the media when he turned his nose at her, is alone worth the price of the book. (June Sawyers)

“Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux”
By Boris Kachka
Simon & Schuster, 448 pages, $28

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