In ‘Hothouse,’ Boris Kachka Tells the Farrar, Straus Story

Boris Kachka’s “Hothouse” is a big wet kiss to the publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. It does its mightiest to find a Platonic ideal in the very way that Farrar, Straus authors, editors and books put words to paper. Surely this is a house with a longer, grander history and greater commitment to serious literature than some other publishers can claim, but is there no such thing as overkill? It once put out an edition of Courtney Love’s diaries that, Mr. Kachka writes, were “meant to be purchased by Lord knows whom.” The same must be said of “Hothouse,” thanks to its fanzine breathlessness and tireless fawning.

Here are the sorts of thing that Mr. Kachka has to say or quote about the dynamic founder-owner Roger W. Straus Jr., the legitimately larger-than-life publishing legend: that he was a child so witty he would bet “heads I win, tails you lose” on the flip of a coin; that one of his “Rogerisms” was saying “extr-awdinary”; that one highly visible “Roger author,” Tom Wolfe, saw him as a peer when it came to “brio, style and ego”; that Straus was “the most European of American publishers,” with “a meld of Guggenheim-heir hauteur and John Wayne brashness.” And that nobody could wear gangster pinstripes with an ascot quite the way he did.

Straus was indeed a Guggenheim on his mother’s side. (“Next to the Strausses, the Guggenheims were arrivistes,” points out Mr. Kachka, who seldom misses the chance to spot a status signifier.) And the Guggenheim family business that Straus went into as a young man was smelting. So there is a solid, if not exciting, story in the way this future publishing king made his way through the World War II Navy and then the literary world, lending his marquee name to several partnerships along the way.

Robert Giroux, who functioned primarily as top editor to Straus’s publisher (John Chipman Farrar, the third name on the binding, is in the book only briefly) may have been the team member who connected better with T. S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford, Flannery O’Connor and John Berryman. But Mr. Kachka makes the less-flattering point that Giroux was known for the turkey and Jell-O lunches he enjoyed at his desk. Straus was known for keeping bathrobes at the homes of publishing-house-connected women he might be meeting for not-so-secret nooners. By the ’70s, Mr. Kachka says, Straus was getting away “with things he might have been arrested for today.”

What was it about him that so transfixed Susan Sontag, one of the house’s most illustrious authors? “Hothouse” conveys what their closeness was like, wondering whether they merely went to parties in matching leather or were involved in something more. “You’re the only person in the world who can call me ‘Baby’ and get away with it,” the book has Sontag telling Straus. Note to those wondering what’s gone wrong with publishing: Is there so little book lore left to think about that “the question of whether or not they were ever an actual couple still divides industry gossips today”?

Mr. Kachka lets his book’s narrow focus and hero worship obscure any thoughtful view of what has kept Farrar, Straus afloat and how it differs from other publishing companies. It’s just special, that’s all. “Hothouse” repeatedly emphasizes the house’s attention to European literature without mentioning other, smaller publishers (like Europa Editions) that are devoted to doing the same. It invidiously compares Simon & Schuster, the publisher of “Hothouse,” to Farrar, Straus & Giroux for its conglomerate thinking and general philistinism. It admires those lowball offers to important authors, even though this is a way to lose talent to publishers willing to pay more. When it boasts about the Nobel Prize count, “Hothouse” sounds like a movie studio in the throes of Oscar fever.

Mr. Kachka’s account of the company’s early years is larded with scrapable details, like the manager of supplies’ excessive purchases of envelopes and toilet paper. Accounts of Straus’s daily presence in the office are even worse: “He’d pick up the latest news from sales, marketing and publicity, hit the bathroom, and, on the return trip, pass that news along to others and resolve nagging issues.” But Mr. Kachka must raise the ante and resort to full-out cheerleading when describing the house’s current incarnation, with Jonathan Galassi in charge (“If Jonathan Galassi didn’t exist, FSG would have had to invent him”), and Jonathan Franzen and Jeffrey Eugenides as top writing talent. Really, it seems better not to remember that the company promoted Mr. Eugenides’s “Marriage Plot” with a Times Square billboard featuring the headline “Swoonworthy” to accompany his picture.

The single most pretzel-twisted story in “Hothouse” is that of how Farrar, Straus went nuclear over the choice of “The Corrections” for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. Its author, Mr. Franzen, felt understandably sandbagged when he was abruptly put on the phone to hear the news from Ms. Winfrey herself. He was not moved to tears of joy. “My publisher’s gonna be really happy,” was his best version of a happy outburst. Complications ensued.

When Ms. Winfrey took such great offense at his lack of enthusiasm that the company urged Mr. Franzen to apologize, he wound up calling her “someone who’s a hero — not a hero of mine per se, but a hero in general.” From there, matters got worse. But Mr. Franzen’s recalcitrance is not hard to understand, and Mr. Kachka needn’t have jumped through hoops on his behalf.

The really great news, “Hothouse” insists on saying, is that sales of “The Corrections” jumped by around 150,000 copies because of the brouhaha. And that Ms. Winfrey put her book club on hiatus. And that when she was ready to reinstate it, the club’s sole pick for 2006 was “Night,” by Elie Wiesel, which was published by Hill & Wang. In his astounding wisdom, Straus had had the foresight to buy Hill & Wang in 1971.

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