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.
Founded in 1960 by such creative pioneers as George Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino, the Oulipo, shorthand for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, came about in when a group of writers and mathematicians sought constraints to find new structures and. . .
There’s little to say about a series of prose poems that willfully refuse to identify pronoun antecedents. Or perhaps there are a million things. The poems in Morse, My Deaf Friend— the chapbook by Miloš Djurdjević published by Ugly Duckling. . .
The Crimson Thread of Abandon is the first collection of short fiction available in English by the prolific Japanese writer and all-around avant-garde trickster Terayama Shūji, who died in 1983 at the age of 47. This collection would be important. . .
Last year, NYRB Classics introduced English-language readers to Catalan writer Josep Pla with Peter Bush’s translation of The Gray Notebook. In that book, Pla wrote about life in Spain during an influenza outbreak soon after World War I, when. . .
“Your bile is stagnant, you see sorrow in everything, you are drenched in melancholy,” my friend the doctor said.
bq. “Isn’t melancholy something from previous centuries? Isn’t some vaccine against it yet, hasn’t medicine taken care of it yet?” I. . .
What to make of Vano and Niko, the English translation of Erlom Akhvlediani’s work of the same name, as well as the two other short books that comprise a sort of trilogy? Quick searches will inform the curious reader that. . .
The opening of Jón Gnarr’s novel/memoir The Indian is a playful bit of extravagant ego, telling the traditional story of creation, where the “Let there be light!” moment is also the moment of his birth on January 2nd, 1967. Then. . .
Mahasweta Devi is not only one of the most prolific Bengali authors, but she’s also an important activist. In fact, for Devi, the two seem to go together. As you can probably tell from the titles, she writes about women. . .
The prolific Spanish author Benito Pérez Galdós wrote his short novel, Tristana, during the closing years of the nineteenth century, a time when very few options were available to women of limited financial means who did not want a husband.. . .
Pedro Zarraluki’s The History of Silence (trans. Nick Caistor and Lorenza García) begins with the narrator and his wife, Irene, setting out to write a book about silence, itself called The History of Silence: “This is the story of how. . .