As someone who loves books but hates thinking about money, the idea that publishing is a business is often hard for me to wrap my head around. But the fact that publishers need to make money with books like 50 Shades of Grey in order to support Great Literature is a reality of the publishing business.
Because I’m curious about that tension, and because I love the occasional gossipy nonfiction, I was very excited to read Hothouse by Boris Kachka when it came out this month. (As a semi-interesting aside, when I featured this book as one of 5 Books on the Business of Books over at Book Riot in June, the book’s editor contacted me and offered a review copy — that’s the first time that has ever happened and I thought it was neat). Quickly, a summary:
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.
Admittedly, the first few chapters of this book were a bit slow for me. Kachka spends about 100 pages exploring the childhoods and early careers of Straus and Giroux, which involves quite a bit of name dropping of wealthy families and prominent businessmen — most that I didn’t recognize or didn’t care about. It’s probably a necessary grounding for the rest of the book, but if you’re reading this to learn about publishing it’s not especially interesting.
Fortunately, the book picks up markedly when Straus finally gets into the world of publishing and starts to maneuver in ways that will lead him to founding FSG. Early life at the company is also fascinating. There’s speculation that some early employees in Europe worked for the CIA and that many of the secretaries had high security clearance to take calls. In an era when money was tight, the office manager made salesmen hand over free hotel soap to be used at the office. There’s lots of gossip — who was having sex with who, and where, and who else knew about it — that seems pretty hard to substantiate conclusively, but makes for a good read nonetheless.
My favorite part of the book, however, was the way that the story of FSG intersects with the broader world of book publishing. Straus and Giroux, in their own ways, took taking care of their authors quite seriously and didn’t care, necessarily, about the bottom line. There’s also tension between the desire to remain an independent publishing house and the business realities that push towards acquisition from a big publisher. FSG is an example of the tensions that arise when business and culture collide over the making of art, and that tension is really fun (and educational) to read about. If you’re at all interested in the world of publishing, Hothouse is a must read book.