Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux - Boris Kachka Interested in publishing? Want an insiders take on one of the grandest American publishing houses? Looking for a gossipy rag to read on a sunny beach? Then look no further than Boris Kachka’s Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art and America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Though the extraordinarily long subtitle is somewhat off-putting, the breezy, glib narrative sets the perfect tone for a sunny afternoon of wandering attention, alcoholic digressions, and juicy gossip. Kachka likes to turn a good phrase, as the title indicates, and he tries hard and frequently to do so throughout this tour of the personalities, editors, and authors that have made FSG what it is today.The two central figures of this narrative are Roger Straus, who started the company against the wishes of his parents, wealthy Jewish-Germans and central figures of “Our Crowd,” and Robert Giroux, who joined the company later in it’s life, after a decade or so at Harcourt, Brace. Straus was the magnetic personality who kept the company going on one side through wealthy connections and shrewd business deals, while Giroux brought in some of our best-known authors. The opposites-attract dynamic worked for a while before it fell apart, as it eventually had to. In Kachka’s rendering, Straus comes across as a larger-than-life personality, the kind that is magnetic but hard to live with in the long run. He was a notorious philanderer and cheapskate who rarely paid his authors the money they needed and his employees the money they deserved. Giroux, on the other hand was quiet, reserved, and worked hard to get his authors their due. Giroux was a Jesuit trained scholarship boy from Columbia, who ended up running the Columbia Review with his best friend and future poet John Berryman. His loyalty to his house and to his authors earned him their respect, and when he finally did break with Harcourt, Brace for their unwillingness to take risks with authors such as J.D. Salinger, he took the likes of T.S. Eliot with him.While these two men dominate the story of FSG, there are numerous others who hold a vital place in its history. Farrar, who started the company with Straus after being ousted from his own publishing house while recuperating in Algiers after the war; Rose Wachtel, the office supplies manager who was such a tyrant that according to one of the employees, if you wanted a new pencil you had to show her the old one to prove that you really had worn down the nub. There’s also digressions on authors and their scandals, such as the possibility that Susan Sontag slept with Straus (they were a power couple downtown in matching leather jackets, according to Kachka), or Jonathan Franzen’s public spat with Oprah, which gets more pages than it really needs (and is excerpted here, at Slate.com). There are almost too many people populating this little history. To help alleviate the pain of remembering who’s who, there’s a 25-page index, along with endnotes for each chapter and an extended bibliography. Together, these tally 100 or so pages.Kachka likes to sound good, yet his prose tends toward the bombastic; it starts right there in the subtitle. But who cares whether or not FSG really was the hottest house in publishing, or if it really is the most celebrated publishing house in America? Kachka is out to sell a book and to tell a good, if frequently tangential, yarn full of gossip on titans of publishing and celebrated authors alike. Just yesterday, over at New York Magazine, Kachka was pointing out the ironies of booksellers, readers, and authors bemoaning the impending death of the last brick and mortar book chain, Barnes & Noble, when it had been previously reviled as the death of independent bookstores and a bane to authors everywhere. He of course mentions the mediocre orders for his own book (only 100 copies for 600 stores), blaming Barnes & Noble for bad contract deals with his publisher, Simon & Schuster. If Hothouse had been written in this straight-forward, informative prose, I might have learned a bit more about the creation and maintenance of FSG. But then it wouldn’t have been nearly as fun, nor would it have felt like the unique treat that it is. Books like these don’t come along very often, and when they do, those with even the smallest interest in the publishing world ought to take note. Hothouse may not be the bestseller that Kachka clearly hopes it will be, but it has captured the attention of the entire book world and in that sense hits its mark perfectly.