A thorough study of the gold standard in American literary publishing, complete with sex, sour editors and the occasional stumble into financial success.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux has corralled some of the most prominent names in literature since it was founded in 1945, from Isaac Bashevis Singer to Susan Sontag to Philip Roth to Jeffrey Eugenides. As New York contributing editor Kachka makes clear in this generally lively history, little of its success came easy: If weak-selling books weren’t the problem, personality clashes within the office were. The core of the story is Roger Straus, who championed some of the publisher’s biggest names throughout the years, including Tom Wolfe, whose fiction and nonfiction defined a generation of writing, though his delayed manuscripts put the company under financial strain. (His 1979 classic on the space program, The Right Stuff, appeared in FSG’s catalog for years.) Some intramural tussles among editors read like insider baseball, but Kachka’s recollections of FSG’s struggle with independence (it sold to the German firm Holtzbrinck in 1994) and the modern era of big-money agents give a smart and informative portrait of the mechanisms of modern publishing. Roger Straus (who died in 2004) was a complicated man fit for this tale: He bedded plenty of women, was notoriously stingy, and engaged in an extended push and pull with his son, Roger Straus III, who’d spend time in and out of the company. Kachka extends the story into the present day, where, under the leadership of Jonathan Galassi, novelists like Eugenides and Jonathan Franzen preserve the publisher’s high-art sensibility while struggling to make ends meet. But Kachka wants to remind us that it’s always been thus: FSG was forever saved from failure by the big hit that cannily merged literary and commercial.
A smart, savvy portrait of arguably the country’s most important publisher.