x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

A candid look at the glory days of a major book publishing house

In his juicy tale about the convergence of art and business, Boris Kachka takes readers on a wildly enjoyable, gossip-filled tour of one of America's most respected publishing firms, writes Saul Austerlitz

Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House
Boris Kachka
Simon & Schuster

You can keep the Kardashians. Move over, George; the newest Windsor is yesterday's news. Those readers interested in pursuing the higher gossip may have found their purveyor of choice in Boris Kachka's publishing world tell-all Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House. Kachka has arrived peddling a steamer trunk's worth of juicy nuggets about Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), the quasi-legendary American publishing house of Solzhenitsyn, Sontag, Vargas Llosa and O'Connor. But gossip this is; Kachka rarely stints on describing the inner workings of what founder Roger Straus's wife Dorothea referred to as "a sexual sewer".

Before proceeding into the sewer, let us first take a tour of the publisher's office. Roger Straus Jr was a scion of the Guggenheim family, a seeming wastrel who, after serving in the Second World War in the US navy's magazine and book section, began an imprint of his own. Straus was a crafty business mind but not much of a reader, so for the more specialised work of selecting and moulding writers, he brought in the editor Robert Giroux from Harcourt, Brace. Giroux was in many ways Straus's inverse: a Catholic to Straus's Jew, quietly gay to Straus's many extramarital tanglings. Most importantly for the future of FSG, Giroux had an eye for attracting and cultivating writers, bringing in many of the esteemed names he had worked with at Harcourt, Brace, and then complementing them with a glittering array of critically acclaimed novelists and poets such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Elizabeth Bishop.

FSG offered an attractive bargain to its favoured writers: steady publication, a stream of work as readers and scouts, and the imprimatur of a noble house in exchange for lower-than-average advances. Employees, too, settled for less: "They worked in gloves in the winter when the heat broke down; they jerry-rigged the paper towel dispenser roll in the ladies' room with an oversize dinner fork; they repaired their own desks and bought their own pencils and made sacrifices in their lives that well-born Roger W Straus Jr would never have to make, all for the freedom to publish what they loved, and little else." One FSG employee was caught stealing books from the office and selling them to local bookstores, and had a legendary rejoinder to Straus on being confronted: "I'll stop if you give me a raise."

The privilege of publishing Edmund Wilson and John Berryman required certain calculated concessions to the public's taste. FSG may have been the house of TS Eliot, but it was also the publisher of record for Sammy Davis Jr's Yes I Can. "Had I not published certain books," Straus told the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel's daughter, "I could not have afforded to publish your father and several other distinguished poets, philosophers and novelists." For all of FSG's loyalty to high literature, most of its bills were paid in those early years by an exercise manual, as in later years blockbuster novels by Scott Turow and Tom Wolfe would subsidise much of the house's less profitable work.

As if inspired by its subject, Hothouse is a companionable, chatty guided tour of the corporate end of literature. This is a business book with only a secondary interest in the writers themselves. Philip Roth shows up primarily to complain about the size of his advances, and Susan Sontag for her symbiotic relationship with Straus. The book's closest models are Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum's I Want My MTV and Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller's Live From New York, about Saturday Night Live - studies of long-standing, if slightly bedraggled, cultural institutions. Kachka has latched onto a juicy tale of art and business, and milks the details of financial intrigue and sexual misbehaviour. This makes for a wildly enjoyable book, if one with not as much to say about contemporary literature as it might think.

Ah yes, the gossip. Straus apparently treated the office like his personal harem, conducting long-term affairs with many of the female staffers at FSG. A certain brand of jovial sexual harassment was once de rigueur for the office. One staffer in the 1970s felt left out when Straus failed to comment on her breasts for a number of months. A dedicated phone line initially intended for a short-lived association with US intelligence agencies (FSG published a book by the diplomat Jeane Kirkpatrick that was little more than government propaganda) became Straus's private line for lunchtime sexual assignations.

Hothouse lovingly describes a bygone era in book publishing, where the ideal promotion for a new book (according to Straus) was for Edmund Wilson to host a dinner party for 18 or 20 carefully selected guests in its honour. (Second place went to a cover story in The New York Times Book Review.) FSG crowned certain writers with glory, and expected them to return the favour. Susan Sontag was the favoured daughter of Straus and the FSG staff, serving as the imprint's first reader and a shadow editor-in-chief, even being placed on the company's health insurance after surviving breast cancer. (Her son David Rieff notes that notorious skinflint Straus failed to contribute to her health fund while she was ill.) "She fit like a key into the culture of FSG," Kachka says of Sontag, "which operated best as a full-blown intellectual apparatus - a one-stop shop of literary greatness. Come for the parties; stay for the book contract; give back by reviewing our other authors or talking them up at the next party."

FSG's success was also born out of its comfort with foreign literature. Utilising the services of an array of well-read European scouts, FSG wholeheartedly embraced Italian and Russian writers, at one point going on an unprecedented streak in which 10 of the 18 Nobel Prize winners, including Singer, Czeslaw Milosz and Joseph Brodsky, were FSG authors. FSG's devotion to the cause of international literature also granted it the opportunity to win out over deeper-pocketed bidders, as when it purchased the rights to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's much sought-after August 1914 because of the author's warm feelings for the company that had put out his Cancer Ward in the United States. "I am glad to say that personal relations still cut more ice in publishing than cabled bids of huge sums of money," crowed Straus. Nonetheless, there were still miscalculations. Sontag told Straus to purchase Salvatore Satta's The Day of Judgment instead of Umberto Eco's wildly popular literary thriller The Name of the Rose. The subsidies for another generation of underselling writers went to Harcourt Brace Jovanovich instead.

Eventually, FSG's generosity to its writers contributed to its unsteady financial sheet. Longer manuscripts required larger advances to keep favoured writers afloat, which made for longer waits between books. Sometimes the patience paid off. After years of delays, Wolfe delivered his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which managed to "mainline the zeitgeist" in precisely the fashion Straus and Giroux had hoped for. Susan Sontag and John McPhee unexpectedly stumbled across financial success later in their careers. But most of FSG's writers, even the beloved ones, sold poorly. "The correspondence is full of rejections," Kachka tells us, "pleading a surfeit of superb books with modest sales." In the 1990s, "FSG's revenue chart for those years looks like an EKG, with one in three years a Turow-led spike and deep Turow-less troughs in between".

Straus's son Rog wanted FSG to diversify its portfolio, while Straus was intent on keeping FSG running to his unique specifications, no matter what the bean-counters might say. The battle led to Rog's departure, but Straus was eventually forced to sell FSG to a European corporation. And his replacement, Jonathan Galassi, has made FSG look more like other publishers. It is likely that no one thinks of Thomas Friedman, one of the label's all-time best-selling writers, as a quintessentially FSG author.

In the end, then, the magic of FSG seems primarily to consist of its utter artificiality. There was nothing especially different about FSG, no unique mission or business model. The company published its share of French cookbooks and legal thrillers alongside its Nobelists, and sold out to a German conglomerate, just like all the other mid-size publishers in New York eventually did. But for a time, FSG - Straus, and also Giroux - convinced the writers they worked with, and the employees they hired, that they were engaged in a pursuit of the eternal verities. They gave the right writers enough time and money and pampering to produce the works they knew them to be capable of. It sounds like hardly anything of note. But if more publishers were capable of it, this book would likely not exist.

 

Saul Austerlitz is a frequent contributor to The Review.