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Weekend Reading: "Hothouse" by Boris Kachka

If you’re looking for a book to read this weekend, one worth checking out is Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Coincidentally, my copy is supposed to arrive today, AND, more relevantly, Publishing Perspectives has a nice write-up about this in today’s issue.

For 35 years, Roger Straus would swagger into the Frankfurt Book Fair, going through the neo-Baroque gates of the Festhall, wearing his bespoke wide-pinstriped suits and an ascot, a mixture of high-born privilege and gruff John Wayne attitude. Straus had founded the great American literary press Farrar, Straus and Giroux and made himself into the sailor-mouthed prince of New York publishing. Straus’ triumphant return every year to Frankfurt was an event in its own right. He was known as the King of the Book Fair.

At Straus’ side was Peggy Miller, his longtime secretary, gatekeeper, and confidant. For Straus, Frankfurt was five days of hard-driving deals, trading bawdy publishing gossip and going to parties in his chauffeured Mercedes with his friends and admirers from the major European publishing houses, including Siegfried Unseld of Germany’s Suhrkamp Verlag and Matthew Evans of Britain’s Faber and Faber.

Straus forms the ribald center of Boris Kachka’s new book Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Simon and Schuster), an in-depth look at the creation and ascendancy of FSG in the New York book world and its championing foreign novelists, Nobel laureates and great literature and poetry, from Susan Sontag to Edmund Wilson, to Tom Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen.

I suspect that most people reading this are already familiar with FSG, but here’s a brief overview of the time period that Boris most focuses on:

From the founding of the press in the late 1940s, Straus turned his attention to Europe, buying translation rights for great Italian and French writers like Carlo Levi, Alberto Moravia and Marguerite Yourcenar at bargain rates. Straus also developed a reputation as a hard bargainer, and as publisher was known for his low salaries for his staff and paltry advances for his authors. The “Straus discount” became shorthand for low pay for rewarding work by both editors and writers.

The heyday of FSG started when Straus hired Robert Giroux, an extremely talented editor who was being mistreated at Harcourt Brace, where the publisher had blocked Giroux’s purchase of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Where Straus was a wealthy and flamboyant publisher who loved his extravagant publishing lunches with writers and agents, Giroux was a self-made editor who had come from a poor French-Canadian Catholic family. Giroux ate the same lunch everyday — a turkey sandwich and Jello at his desk for the four decades he worked at FSG. Giroux championed such writers as Flannery O’Connor and Bernard Malamud.

And even if you’re not in publishing this book should appeal to you—and not just for all the sordid sex scandals:

Hothouse is great fun to read, with much inside baseball information about the publishing industry, with stories like Roger Straus saving Edmund Wilson from jail and the IRS in the early 1960s by buying Wilson’s gossipy diaries and by “prepaying” Wilson’s advance money to payoff IRS debts. There is also much about the mechanics of building a great American press from scratch and FSG’s survival during times of anemic profit margins.

S&S’s promotion of Hothouse plays on the publishing industry appeal of the book. In a pre-pub mailer sent to 5,000 industry professionals, the copy said, “DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT ASKING US FOR A FREE COPY.”

Kachka’s book, however, should hit a larger audience outside of New York publishing because it is a rip-roaring tale of American intellectual culture after the war, and how this culture changed as independent publishing houses were sucked up by corporations and when writers like Philip Roth and Ian Frazier realized they were worth more money for their books.

Since I just finished plowing through the fantastic La Grande by Juan Jose Saer, I’m hoping to unwind this weekend with a little insider baseball FSG gossipy fun.



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