Farrar, Straus and Giroux is arguably the most influential publishing house of the modern era. Home to an unrivaled twenty-five Nobel Prize winners and generation-defining authors like T. Read more...
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Farrar, Straus and Giroux is arguably the most influential publishing house of the modern era. Home to an unrivaled twenty-five Nobel Prize winners and generation-defining authors like T. S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Franzen, it's a cultural institution whose importance approaches that of "The New Yorker" or "The New York Times." But FSG is no ivory tower--the owner's wife called the office a "sexual sewer"--and its untold story is as tumultuous and engrossing as many of the great novels it has published.
Boris Kachka deftly reveals the era and the city that built FSG through the stories of two men: founder-owner Roger Straus, the pugnacious black sheep of his powerful German-Jewish family--with his bottomless supply of ascots, charm, and vulgarity of every stripe--and his utter opposite, the reticent, closeted editor Robert Giroux, who rose from working-class New Jersey to discover the novelists and poets who helped define American culture. Giroux became one of T. S. Eliot's best friends, just missed out on "The Catcher in the Rye," and played the placid caretaker to manic-depressive geniuses like Robert Lowell, John Berryman, Jean Stafford, and Jack Kerouac. Straus, the brilliant showman, made Susan Sontag a star, kept Edmund Wilson out of prison, and turned Isaac Bashevis Singer from a Yiddish scribbler into a Nobelist--even as he spread the gossip on which literary New York thrived.
A prolific lover and an epic fighter, Straus ventured fearlessly, and sometimes recklessly, into battle for his books, his authors, and his often-struggling company. When a talented editor left for more money and threatened to take all his writers, Roger roared, "Over my dead body"--and meant it. He turned a philosophical disagreement with Simon & Schuster head Dick Snyder into a mano a mano media war that caught writers such as Philip Roth and Joan Didion in the crossfire. He fought off would-be buyers like S. I. Newhouse ("that dwarf") with one hand and rapacious literary agents like Andrew Wylie ("that shit") with the other. Even his own son and presumed successor was no match for a man who had to win at any cost--and who was proven right at almost every turn.
At the center of the story, always, are the writers themselves. After giving us a fresh perspective on the postwar authors we thought we knew, Kachka pulls back the curtain to expose how elite publishing works today. He gets inside the editorial meetings where writers' fates are decided; he captures the adrenaline rush of bidding wars for top talent; and he lifts the lid on the high-stakes pursuit of that rarest commodity, public attention--including a fly-on-the-wall account of the explosive confrontation between Oprah Winfrey and Jonathan Franzen, whose relationship, Franzen tells us, "was bogus from the start."
Vast but detailed, full of both fresh gossip and keen insight into how the literary world works, "Hothouse" is the product of five years of research and nearly two hundred interviews by a veteran "New York" magazine writer. It tells an essential story for the first time, providing a delicious inside perspective on the rich pageant of postwar cultural life and illuminating the vital intellectual center of the American Century.
- ISBN-13: 9781451691894
- ISBN-10: 1451691890
- Publisher: Simon & Schuster
- Publish Date: August 2013
- Page Count: 433
Books > Business & Economics > Corporate & Business History - General
Books > Business & Economics > Industries - Media & Communications
Books > Biography & Autobiography > Editors, Journalists, Publishers
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-03-18
- Reviewer: Staff
The New York book world, poised between scruffy glamour and crass commercialism, emerges in this lively chronicle of an iconic institution. New York magazine contributing editor Kachka chronicles the midsized independent publishing house whose mission of bringing high culture to the mass market set the tone for postwar American letters. The saga’s charismatic ringmaster is Robert Straus, FSG’s ebullient, profane part owner and publisher. His tangled relationships with a string of brilliant writers, including Edmund Wilson, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, and Philip Roth, are equal parts paternalistic and exploitative; authors loved FSG’s support and sympathy—Straus and his editors championed difficult writers and nurtured blocked, broke, and addicted ones—but the substandard advances, not so much. Threading through Kachka’s juicy narrative is an epochal shift in the industry: from the old FSG, with its shabby offices, lewd banter, nonstop adulteries, dysfunctional quasi-familial relations between authors and the publisher, and febrile literary passions, to the new era of bland media conglomerates, for which books are but transitory business partnerships between executives, authors, and celebrity agents. Entertaining, accessible, smart, and thought-provoking, this is a book very much in tune with the lost literary milieu it recreates. Photos. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. (Aug. 6)
Behind the scenes of a literary upstart
There’s no denying that book publishing has weathered some blows in these first years of the new millennium, what with the closing of many brick-and-mortar stores, the rise of eBooks and the sagging economy in general. A more vibrant, hopeful era in the book trade is depicted in Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, the story of the eccentric, scrappy publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Started after the Second World War by Guggenheim heir Roger Straus Jr., FSG was able to hold onto its independence for decades, as other publishers were acquired by corporations, consolidated and homogenized. Straus’ fiefdom did more than survive—it thrived, with an extraordinary share of Nobel laureates and other literary giants on its list. Despite the house’s apt reputation for tightfistedness when it came to both author advances and employee salaries, many remained fiercely loyal to FSG, staying put even when more money was in the offing elsewhere.
As Kachka makes clear, the reasons for this unlikely success were two very different men: publisher Straus and editor Robert Giroux. Flamboyant and daring, Straus exuded a confidence instilled by his privileged upbringing. The self-effacing Giroux, son of a factory foreman, was the antithesis of the showman Straus, but no less daring in his quiet way. It would be Giroux’s literary tastes that would shape the FSG list, while Straus’ keen business sense consistently kept the company afloat against all odds.
At its famously low-rent headquarters on Union Square, where rabbit-warren offices and linoleum tile floors were a stark contrast to the posher digs of its uptown rivals, FSG launched and/or nurtured the careers of such writers as Susan Sontag, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth—the roster is seemingly endless—and in the process turned out some of the most enduring books of the era. The editors whom Straus and Giroux handpicked and brought on board, including Henry Robbins, Michael di Capua, Pat Strachan and Jonathan Galassi (who is still at the helm), comprise a veritable who’s-who of American publishing in the latter half of the 20th century.
Amid all the highbrow literary strivings, however, it is the more earthy drama at FSG that drives Hothouse and broadens its appeal. As Kachka tells it, Roger Straus rarely met a female underling he didn’t wish to bed, and he set a tone of sexual laissez faire that permeated the company and ended more than one marriage, though not Straus’ own enduring one. When his only son, Roger III, was getting divorced and having an affair with another FSG employee, the disapproving elder Straus told him that marriage was about family, and sex and love could be sought outside it. The whole scenario makes “Mad Men” seem practically chaste.
The behind-the-scenes stories of Straus’ celebrated machinations to keep FSG free and maintain its prestige are no less fascinating for the window they provide into the ways publishing has changed over time. Competing with the much deeper pockets of its corporate-owned competitors, FSG needed wiles to survive, and Straus had those in spades. He was reluctant to compromise in a deal, and afterward always reinvented history to paint himself the victor. Beneath the flash and ego, though, Kachka shows Straus to be genuine in his love for the company, the books it produced and especially the authors it published.
“Not only was it greater than the sum of its sales, it punched higher above its weight than any other publisher,” Kachka says of FSG, which he rightly likens to The New Yorker as a cultural bellwether. Hothouse is an essential history of publishing’s little engine that could.