Robert Giroux and Publishing

The recent issue of New York magazine has a great article by Boris Kachka about Robert Giroux that includes these choice bits:

Consider what brought Giroux to FSG in the first place: The same frustration with bottom-line publishing that drives literary editors to drink today. Giroux had spent the decade after World War II at Harcourt, Brace, where his taste and exacting attention helped build a sterling list of authors. But in the late forties, his boss was replaced by Eugene Reynal, a man who just didn’t get good books. When Giroux wanted to acquire The Catcher in the Rye, Reynal objected, “The guy’s crazy,” meaning Holden Caulfield. In 1955, Giroux angrily resigned and accepted an offer from Roger Straus, the flamboyant publisher of Farrar, Straus & Co. He never asked any of his authors to follow, but seventeen of them did, including Eliot, Robert Lowell, Flannery O’Connor, Bernard Malamud, and one of his best friends, poet John Berryman. Straus—who died in 2004—considered Giroux’s arrival “the single most important thing to happen to this company.” [. . .]

What Straus and Giroux did share were very similar tastes and a genuine love of authors, and they both tended, as old age and corporate consolidation advanced, toward cranky proclamations. Each in his own way, of course: Straus compared conglomerate publishers to spaghetti salesmen, publicly feuded with Simon & Schuster, and turned down offers to buy the house (before relenting in 1994). Giroux, conceding “I’m just an old fogey,” asked, “Who the hell would read a book by Nixon?” (What did he make of O.J., you wonder.) He railed against “ooks”—gimmicks that weren’t quite books—which account for the majority of what’s now published. He often said, “It is the publisher’s job, if he cannot find a masterpiece to print, at least to avoid publishing junk.”

Junk is not a modern development, any more than layoffs or bankruptcies. Galassi made this clear at the memorial, calling out the titles on the 1952 Farrar list—before Giroux came onboard. These included an autobiography by bandleader Artie Shaw and books on traveling and hunting in Florida. “The most sobering of all publishing lessons,” Giroux once 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.” The times will never catch up with those schlocky books from ’52, but one or two of them may have helped the company hold on long enough for Giroux to get there. In the early years, it was Straus’s canniness and connections that kept the company going. Giroux was the one who made it worth salvaging. Galassi will have to keep doing both.

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