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In the world of book publishing, ravaged though it may be, the name Farrar, Straus & Giroux still bespeaks literary quality. It's a publishing house that boasts a roll call of 25 Nobel Prize winners and heavyweights like Susan Sontag, Carlos Fuentes, Joan Didion, Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen. A lot of writers, past and present, have turned down higher advances for their books from other publishing houses for the honor of being an FSG author.
Hothouse is the name of an exhaustively researched and sometimes gossipy history of Farrar, Straus & Giroux written by Boris Kachka, a contributing editor at New York Magazine. In the doldrums of August, Hothouse is the hot book that book people are talking about, and understandably so. It offers an unavoidably nostalgic look back at swashbuckling adventures in independent publishing, as contrasted with our own doomsday present when, at the one extreme, greedy global conglomerates have swallowed up much of the American publishing industry and, at the other, the unruly democratic forces of the Internet and self-publishing are chipping away at traditional literary culture.
Oh, for the good old days when a randy despot like Roger Straus ran the show along with his cerebral alter ego of an editorial partner, Robert Giroux. Kachka's story of the rise of FSG benefits from the lucky biographical break that the men at the helm were such Mutt and Jeff opposites. Owner Roger Straus founded the company in 1946 with John Farrar, who drops out of the history early on. Straus was the charming bad boy offspring of a wealthy German Jewish family: He favored ascots, foul language and wheeling and dealing.
It's still not clear to me, even after reading Kachka's 400-plus-page book, why Straus went into publishing: He wasn't exactly the bookish type. Running the company, however, allowed him to play squire to the likes of Edmund Wilson and Joseph Brodsky, and gave him access to any female employee who was up for fleeing FSG's dumpy offices for a lunchtime tryst. Straus' wife, herself an heiress to the Rheingold beer fortune, called the offices of FSG "a sexual sewer."
Giroux was a working-class Catholic scholarship boy and a closeted gay man: He came on board in 1955 and shaped its platinum-plated editorial sensibility, signing up his good friend T.S. Eliot as well as Flannery O'Connor, Robert Lowell and Bernard Malamud. Giroux, like his hero Maxwell Perkins, was an editor who stuck with his famous writers through bad reviews and long dry spells. "The most sobering of all publishing lessons," Giroux said, is that "a great book is often ahead of its time, and the trick is how to keep it afloat until the times catch up with it."
Hothouse is jampacked with information about the postwar New York literary world, but, boy, you really have to work as a reader to extract those stories. Dare I say this book needed a stronger editor? Kachka's sentences are name-droppingly dense. Here's an example, by no means the knottiest: "In 1949, Giroux had the chance to acquire a story collection by Mary McCarthy, who not only was Edmund Wilson's ex-wife — the survivor of a marriage as abusive as the Lowells' — but was now leaving Robert Linscott, the same editor Wilson had abandoned for Roger Straus."
This "editor's insider lunch" style of writing infects Hothouse with the same kind of smugness that, historically, has been the less attractive byproduct of Farrar Straus & Giroux's distinction as a publishing house. Part of the reason that FSG could afford to publish all those poets and intellectuals is that it made big profit off the likes of diet books, Sammy Davis Jr.'s blockbuster memoir Yes I Can and the smart thrillers of Scott Turow. Those writers, figuratively and literally, didn't rate invites to Roger Straus' Upper East Side town house soirees where the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Mary McCarthy and Jerzy Kosinski could be glimpsed, huddled in conversation. By the end of Hothouse, I honestly didn't know whether to mourn the passing of the elite old guard in literature or to welcome the new barbarians at the gates.