Book World: A publishing house’s back story in ‘Hothouse,’ by Boris Kachka

August 7, 2013

Many, if not most, readers are hardly aware of who publishes their favorite authors. Without looking, could you name John Grisham’s publisher? Or J.K. Rowling’s? Or Thomas Pynchon’s? Probably not. Only those who make their living in the book industry, starting with the writers themselves, tend to know or care that Knopf means classy and distinguished, that Simon & Schuster is a commercial powerhouse and that Farrar Straus Giroux — the subject of this juicy new book by New York magazine contributing editor Boris Kachka — has long possessed unrivaled literary cachet.

In “Hothouse,” Kachka sets forth a strikingly unexpurgated history of FSG, impressively researched, rich in anecdotes and journalistically balanced, yet subtly suffused with witty and even slyly derisive touches. Speaking, for instance, of the revered long-form journalist John McPhee, Kachka writes that “Farrar, Straus gave him unconditional love: Every single one of his books, many of them about rocks, was accepted and kept perpetually in print.” More boldly, he later describes certain big-idea nonfiction writers as “akin to Malcolm Gladwell but with genuine expertise.”

Roger Straus (1917-2004), the scapegrace scion of one branch of the Guggenheim family, founded the publishing house that bears his name in 1945. His initial partner, John Farrar, an old-style industry stalwart, brought the young company some initial street cred. But “Furor, Stress,” as it was once nicknamed, survived its early years largely because of some hokey bestsellers, in particular Gayelord Hauser’s “Look Younger, Live Longer.” While FSG typically regards itself as the house of poets and Nobel Prize winners, its bills have often been paid by timely commercial blockbusters, such as Sammy Davis Jr.’s “Yes I Can,” Scott Turow’s “Presumed Innocent” and Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities.”

While Straus did well enough in his first decade, only when he lured editor Robert Giroux away from Harcourt, Brace in 1955 did his company achieve liftoff. In his 2008 publishing memoir, “The Time of Their Lives,” Al Silverman — former head of Viking — summed up the new team: “Straus, glib, flamboyant, power-driven, with a hunger for books that would go places, yet stingy with his forces; Giroux, austere (he was Jesuit-trained, after all), conservative in dress, with an elegant mind that translated into a purity about his calling.” Giroux was also quietly homosexual and in a lifelong relationship, while the married Straus was an irrepressible ladies’ man.

In fact, Straus’s own wife, Dorothea, once called FSG a “sexual sewer,” and Kachka duly sketches an office culture rife with adultery, philandering and what we would now call the widespread exploitation of young, female employees. While many people fell under the sway of Straus’s alpha-male charm, on the page he comes across as selfish, grandstanding and vulgar, not all that different from the rich and loutish Tom Buchanan in “The Great Gatsby.” As Kachka writes, Roger Straus would give credit “where it was due but rarely enough of it.” He insisted on the limelight for himself.


“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)

Kachka does raise one particularly brazen question: Did Straus actually read books? “The most common theory, especially among those who saw him lug manuscripts up to Purchase for the weekend, is that he didn’t so much read books as ‘read in’ them, as he sometimes put it — enough to get a nose for them, like fine wines.” That’s not what I would call reading. Straus, it would appear, may have loved literature in the abstract, but he loved even more the excitement and glamour of the literary high life.

By contrast, Robert Giroux (1914-2008) was a true bookman as well as the finest editor of his generation. His authors were, or became, his friends: John Berryman, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor and many others. When Giroux left Harcourt for FSG, T.S. Eliot went along with him. In his later years, the still-spry editor managed some of his authors’ literary estates and started writing — I reviewed his elegant 1982 study of Shakespeare’s sonnets, “The Book Known as Q.”

Once he landed at FSG, Giroux spent the rest of his publishing career there. But many other exceptional editors — Henry Robbins (whose authors included Joan Didion and the young John Irving), Michael di Capua (who meticulously oversaw children’s books) and the multitalented Aaron Asher — left the firm for higher salaries or to get away from Straus. Even Roger Straus III, the business-savvy son and heir apparent, eventually quit out of frustration and went to work at Harper & Row, later coming back to FSG for a while and then finally leaving publishing altogether.

Two remarkable women proved central to Roger Straus’s professional life, and neither was his wife. One was his secretary, confidante and traveling companion, Peggy Miller; the other was Susan Sontag, who quickly became the company’s unofficial literary adviser.

Not surprisingly, “at least one woman who was involved with Roger says he told her that he slept with Sontag early in their relationship.” The pair even sported matching leather jackets. Nevertheless, according to the writer’s son, David Rieff, when the uninsured Sontag learned she had breast cancer, Straus didn’t contribute a dime to a fund established to help cover her bills. He could be lavish in his own lifestyle — servants, a Mercedes convertible, month-long holidays in Europe — but he was stingy in every other respect. FSG’s offices were long famous for their squalor.

Still, its books had class. Straus brought out Isaac Bashevis Singer, Pablo Neruda, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, William Golding, Elias Canetti and Mario Vargas Llosa — just to mention some of the house’s Nobel laureates. For years, FSG was able to trade on the cultural magnetism of its name — until its more-famous clients realized, thanks to the beguilements of super-agent Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie, that they could be pulling in a whole lot more money elsewhere. Many, including Sontag and Wolfe, threatened to leave FSG, and some did. At almost the same time, the entire publishing industry started to change, growing increasingly corporate. More and more, the only books that truly mattered were those that the accountants kept.

In 1994, a financially strapped Straus sold FSG to the German conglomerate Holtzbrinck, with the promise that it would remain essentially independent and under the guidance of his successor, Jonathan Galassi. A poet and translator of Montale and Leopardi, Galassi possessed both literary savvy — he brought novelists Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides to FSG — and his own flair for business. That’s still true. However, as Kachka writes in his last paragraph, “The old, aristocratic order of Roger Straus has given way to a world of uniformity and accommodation. No longer do emperors roam the halls of midtown or Union Square. . . . What few nobles are left serve at the pleasure of powerful technocrats. But they still have their titles, and we still have their books.”

And one of those books, published by a rival company that Roger Straus utterly loathed, is Kachka’s vivid, disillusioning and immensely enjoyable “Hothouse.”

Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.

HOTHOUSE

The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House: Farrar, Straus & Giroux

By Boris Kachka

Simon & Schuster. 432 pp. $28

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