Burning Love: On ‘Hothouse,’ Boris Kachka’s Adoring History of FSG

Boris Kachka

Boris Kachka

Book publishing hums along on mythology. It may not be lucrative, but the noble job of bringing books into the world is enough of a cause for many former English majors to sign up perennially. In lieu of comfortable salaries, editorial assistants are paid in anecdotes about famous authors and legends about acquisitions. The dusty gentility of yesteryear, mostly absent from today’s fluorescent corporate culture, still holds sway over the imagination.

Few publishing houses can claim to be as revered as the authors they publish, but Farrar Straus & Giroux remains one of them, as Boris Kachka illustrates in Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House. FSG’s devotion to literature, which manages to straddle the line between art and commerce, is immortalized by Mr. Kachka, a New York magazine contributing editor who has covered the publishing industry for more than a decade.

Recreating the 2008 memorial for Bob Giroux, Mr. Kachka quotes a speech by former FSG editor Paul Elie: “It is tempting to float an analogy between his death and the death of a certain kind of publishing. But the fact is that his kind of publishing was rare in his own time, and so was he.” This central premise, that FSG was always a different kind of publishing house, is undercut somewhat by history. FSG began as a literary house, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t make concessions to commerce along the way. Among the early best-sellers that kept the house afloat was a 1950 fad diet book by Gayelord Hauser called Look Younger, Live Longer. As FSG started racking up prizes and celebrated authors, the colophon of three fish stacked on top of each other (itself taken from Noonday Press, which FSG acquired in 1960) began to stand for quality. Authors like Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, Philip Roth and Susan Sontag (who became something of an honorary editor at the house) were willing to take less money in favor of the conviction that Roger Straus’s way was the best way.

Of course, Andrew Wylie, that jackal (or as Mr. Straus called him, “that shit,” eschewing the agent’s more well-known nickname) came in and told loyal longtime authors that they could be making more money. Mr. Straus claimed that Mr. Wylie seduced Philip Roth in the editor’s own living room during a cocktail party. Mr. Roth, who had come over to FSG in 1974, left after Mr. Wylie convinced him that he should be making the same amount of money as the more-endowed Tom Wolfe (“My penis is as big as his,” Mr. Roth said after hearing about Mr. Wolfe’s multimillion-dollar advance for his next book in the wake of Bonfire of the Vanities’s success).

What Hothouse does best is to characterize the shabby prestige of the publishing industry, despite the temptation of wealth and literaryhothouse fame. The FSG office, Mr. Kachka writes, “was filthy, inadequately heated and cooled, never painted, teeming with bugs and ugly fluorescent tube lights and impoverished if passionate lifers. It was also a private fiefdom under one lord, Roger Straus, a man who could be cheap, vulgar, classist, and sexist all in one gratuitously cruel remark.” But it was precisely those conditions, and Mr. Straus’s larger-than-life personality, that appealed to both writers and employees, exemplifying a romantic image of an industry devoted to ideas rather than best-sellers.

Mr. Straus is the hero of the story and the most colorful of the three eponymous editors. He played the part of the wealthy book maven, made grand pronouncements and acted as editorial overlord. He slept with many of his female employees (two of whom kept identical bathrobes at their apartments so that the boss would feel at home during nooners). His favorite toast was “Fuck the peasants.” He was part of the “Our Crowd” German Jewish aristocracy. John Farrar was an old-line WASP from Vermont—low on money but high on pedigree. Bob Giroux grew up in Jersey City, the son of a factory foreman from Quebec and an Irish-American schoolteacher-turned-piecework seamstress. The young Mr. Giroux’s early accolades came in the form of being the first member of his parish to go to the exclusive St. Regis High School on the Upper East Side on a scholarship. “The most remarkable thing about the partnership of Straus and Giroux is that their paths crossed at all,” Mr. Kachka writes.

But the world war eased class boundaries—in this case, uniting young men who may otherwise have remained in their separate literary milieus. And that was an advantage in the still-segregated world of midcentury publishing: “In a field divided between WASPs (Doubleday) and Jews (Knopf), FSC had one representative of each group, plus a Catholic for good measure.” (Sheila Cudahy was the Catholic C before Mr. Giroux ascended from editor in chief to add his initials to the company.) Mr. Kachka maps out a detailed genealogy for the publishing house, but his recitation of lineage becomes distracting and bogs down the narrative when applied to minor figures. For example, Eugene Reynal, who took over Harcourt, Brace in 1948, is “a New York Social Register aristocrat, a graduate of Harvard and Oxford,” but is “nevertheless no intellectual.” Secretaries and writers are given the same treatment.

In the Straus era, there are tales of the wooing of authors and editors and the sting of their desertions. There is the oedipal struggle with Mr. Straus’s son, “Young Rog,” who seems to have been a crucial source for Mr. Kachka. There is quiet resentment between Messrs. Straus and Giroux. There is a final, familial lunch at the older Mr. Straus’s beloved Union Square Café, the suggestion being that noontime trysts are replaced with Danny Meyer meals as one ages. And aging finally gave way to the multiple memorials for Mr. Straus in publishing’s major cities: New York, Frankfurt and London.

The section on modern-day FSG is devoted to events so recent as to make the reader feel like she is thumbing through back issues of New York, but it highlights the fact that publishing is no longer as alluring as it was. It is now just an industry that makes books. After reading Hothouse, the reader is left wondering if that’s all it ever was—literary grandstanding notwithstanding. Still, the main problem with a book about book publishing, as Mr. Straus would have hated to admit, is that it’s hard to imagine the market for it. Hothouse is being published by Simon & Schuster, which is held up contemptuously throughout its pages as an example of crass commercialism. Of his own publisher, Mr. Kachka writes, somewhat incredibly, “For all their great size, commercial publishing conglomerates like Simon & Schuster—a favorite Straus whipping boy—had maybe a book or two a season of lasting literary value.” One would assume, then, that there is at least a market. Unfortunately, most people in publishing get books for free.