Part investigation, part appreciation, part gossip, Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux chronicles the rise of what may be considered 20th century publishing’s premier independent American house—and its most unforgettable personalities.
Foremost is founder Roger Straus, Jr., a descendant of two of New York’s most influential Jewish families, the Guggenheims and the Strauses, co-owners of Macy’s. Straus owned 51 percent of the company. He made all the decisions, Kachka says, including hiring Robert Giroux.
“He was the sun around which everything revolved, and there’s no avoiding that that’s where the story had to revolve, too,” Kachka adds. Straus was the wheeler-dealer king of the Frankfurt Book Fair, shtupping multiple secretaries simultaneously (and perhaps Susan Sontag). In contrast, editor Robert Giroux, a pious Catholic scholarship student, stuck to professional, deeply personal relationships with select writers, including Flannery O’Connor and John Berryman.
Together they built a house that would eventually boast 22 Nobel Prize-winners, including Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Pablo Neruda, Issac Bashevis Singer and Seamus Heaney. “I think because [FSG] was independent, it was taste-driven, but it was big enough to really have an impact. It definitely punched well above its weight,” says Kachka.
Kachka, who covers the publishing industry as a contributing editor for New York magazine, was approached with the idea for Hothouse by literary agent Jane Dystel and saw a potential window into the culture and business of a bygone era. Amidst today’s behemoth mergers (Penguin and Random House, for example) and ever-tightening budgets, an FSG eschewing book auctions and exchanging the cultural cachet of three iconic fish on a book’s spine for non-competitive advances is unimaginable.
The FSG way was to “first build relationships, then build buzz, then build the perfect book, and then—if you’re lucky—the sales will eventually follow.” Those golden days are gone (though most people would say the quality of FSG books continues): The company was sold to a German conglomerate, the Holtzbrinck Group, in 1994.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.