≡ Menu

Review: ‘Hothouse’ by Boris Kachka

hothouse by boris kachkaAs 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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Marie August 28, 2013, 12:08 pm

    I’m interested in this one. The publishing world has always fascinated me. I know very little about what the day to day life in a publishing company actually entails, but the idea of a career revolving around putting books out into the world is so enticing! There are probably lots of politics and financial matters that put a damper on the novelty of it all, but I like the idea of it. Maybe I should pick this one up, if for nothing else than a reality check to keep me from impulsively switching careers mid-stream!

    • Kim August 28, 2013, 7:21 pm

      I don’t know much either. I have a book called Merchants of Culture that I’m really excited to read that’s on that topic. This one is probably a more entertaining, gossipy read than that one.

  • Katie @ Doing Dewey August 28, 2013, 2:37 pm

    This sounds like a fascinating read. I always enjoy books about books and it would be very interesting to learn a little more about the process of publishing a book. It’s not something I’m interested in doing myself, but obviously as a reader it still impacts my life, so it would be nice to understand it better 🙂

    • Kim August 28, 2013, 7:22 pm

      This book is a lot about personalities and politics, less about the logistics of book publishing — if that makes a difference in wanting to read or not. But those things play a role, whether we think they do or not, so it’s good for that too.

      • Katie @ Doing Dewey August 28, 2013, 8:07 pm

        Thanks for letting me know! I might pick it up anyway since I often like non-fiction which is more about the people story than the topic. It’s still good to know though since I think I’m much more likely to like a book if I have accurate expectations going into it.

  • Shannon @ River City Reading August 28, 2013, 5:03 pm

    Glad to hear this lives up to some of the hype I’ve been hearing and what I’ve been hoping it would be like. I love the time period and am fascinated by the world of publishing, so I feel like this is one I”m meant to love.

    • Kim August 28, 2013, 7:22 pm

      I think so too, I hope you enjoy it!

  • Jennifer August 28, 2013, 9:05 pm

    I’ve been curious about this one. I wish it were a bit more about publishing itself but I still think I’d like this 🙂

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:50 am

      I think it’s be cool to read this one in conjunction with another book on publishing I’m excited about, Merchants of Culture, which seems to be more about the logistic of publishing than the people in the industry. We’ll see though — I haven’t gotten to read it yet!

  • tanya August 29, 2013, 3:29 am

    I can’t wait to get my hands on this one. I have been hearing great buzz about it for months now. Of course, that is likely because I read a lot of book blogs and this book is a no brainer for book bloggers!

  • Nikki Steele August 29, 2013, 10:30 am

    This looks fascinating — thanks for the review!

  • Oo, this does look interesting! I might skim through the first few chapters (oh dear I know it is wrong to do so but sometimes I do it anyway :p) to get straight to the good bits.

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:51 am

      There is some name dropping after page 100, but more often it’s authors and people I recognize rather than wealthy NYC families. I think it’s ok to skim the beginning 🙂

  • susan September 2, 2013, 10:03 pm

    Is there gossip about the authors they have? I’m interested in the scenes behind the publishing so this book sounds good. Another interesting book I recall on this was Michael Korda’s memoir Another Life …. cheers.

    • Kim September 8, 2013, 10:52 am

      Yes, there’s lots of gossip about authors. There’s a great chunk about the Franzen/Oprah debacle as well as some behind-the-scenes about negotiating with authors/agents.

  • Donna September 5, 2013, 11:57 pm

    Thanks for reviewing this. It’s almost got to my TBR pile once. Now I shall order it from the library and read it soon.