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Book review

‘Hothouse’ by Boris Kachka

John Farrar and Roger Straus.

Fararr, Straus & Girou

John Farrar and Roger Straus.

Edward Keating/The New York Times

At a 1996 party for the publishing house: poet John Ashberry and Susan Sontag.

What is it about literary types? Oh, the sex! Oh, the emotional drama!

And, oh, what tremendous fun it all is to read about when we’re in the hands of a writer who knows how to spin a savory tale. So it is with Boris Kachka’s delectably gossipy “Hothouse,” a deeply researched, jam-packed, surprisingly hard-to-put-down history of the eminent publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux that escapes lit-nerd ghettoization by the sheer force of its storytelling.

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Centered on the charismatic, gloriously foul-mouthed figure of publisher Roger W. Straus Jr. and filled with the entertainingly articulate voices of FSG intimates and enemies, the book is fueled by Kachka’s unwavering belief in the enduring importance of publishing as a culture-shaping force.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux was no ordinary publisher back in the day. A little house, it had a big, important roll of authors: Elizabeth Bishop, Robert Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Susan Sontag, Flannery O’Connor, Madeleine L’Engle, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Tom Wolfe, and on and on. Founded in 1945, it was, Kachka writes, “the company that arguably set the intellectual tone of postwar America.”

“Hothouse” begins with the deaths of Straus in 2004 and Robert Giroux in 2008. “FSG’s legacy is inseparable from those of its two departed leaders, Straus and Giroux — one its restless gut, the other its quiet brain,” Kachka tells us. He is right about that, but his fine book does not deliver on its implied promise. Giroux saw his hero, Maxwell Perkins, become the subject of the classic publishing biography, “Max Perkins: Editor of Genius,” but FSG’s own great editor is an essential thread Kachka picks up and then, partway through the book, drops, seemingly unable to gain a proper understanding of him. Poor John Farrar, who founded the company with Straus, is a minor figure in this account.

Straus was far more voluble and colorful than either of them; from the time he published Sammy Davis Jr.’s autobiography, the two shared a tailor. Straus blazed a shiny trail, and that’s largely what “Hothouse” follows.

The FSG office, however, was hardly glamorous: “filthy, inadequately heated and cooled, never painted, teeming with bugs and ugly fluorescent tube lights and impoverished if passionate lifers.” In that grubby atmosphere bubbled “a cauldron of adultery that Roger’s wife called a ‘sexual sewer.’ ” This is the sort of detail that Kachka, a contributing editor at New York magazine, relishes, and for good reason.

Edward Keating/The New York Times

Straus and poet Seamus Heaney.

So is this: Sontag was a 20-something upstart — too smiley to be a real New Yorker, Mary McCarthy told her — when Straus took her under his wing in the early 1960s, the beginning of decades of close friendship. Were they ever sexually involved? A “staff member — who had in fact sent Sontag her first FSG check — lived near the office and hosted Roger for the occasional lunchtime frolic. She also lent him her apartment for other nooners and would come home to find long black hairs on her pillow, which she firmly believed were Sontag’s.”

Straus, who was a Guggenheim on his mother’s side, was a wealthy but not intellectual guy. He went into publishing partly as an act of rebellion against his father, who’d wanted him to join the family smelting concern. Superb at the social side of business, Straus was a boss who managed by strolling through the office, a publisher who won authors with charm and attention, even if the money he offered wasn’t much.

“If I’ve met someone with a bigger ego than his I couldn’t readily come up with a name,” said his son, Roger Straus III, “and with other publishers, mostly that gets in the way of your relationship with writers. But somehow, his towering ego and their ambitions became fused into a single unit. Two towering egos beating as one.”

Arthur Wang

Robert Giroux.

But it was Giroux who brought a critical mass of prestige authors aboard when, a decade after Straus first courted him for the job, he defected from Harcourt in 1955 to become FSG’s editor in chief. “Dear Don,” Eliot cabled Giroux’s Harcourt boss, “Bob tells me he is leaving and I want you to know I’m offering him my next book.”

Straus, Giroux, and — Kachka makes clear — a team of many others, including Roger Straus III, built the company into what it became: a magnet for Nobel Prizes, a publisher so esteemed that authors like Jamaica Kincaid valued its cultural cachet over what it could afford to pay. “I would sell my soul to the devil to write a great book but I wouldn’t sell my book to the highest bidder,” she said.

Then, in 1994, Straus sold the firm to a German group rather than let his son succeed him, and its days as a scrappy independent were over. But he stayed with FSG for the rest of his life.

Kachka’s history continues nearly until the present, but he barely touches on the other tectonic shifts to the publishing landscape: the demise of independent bookstores, then of brick-and-mortar bookstores; the rise of the e-book.

Published by Straus’s “proud nemeses,” Simon & Schuster, “Hothouse” loses its center when it loses Straus. Toward the end, there is a lengthy and ill-advised rehash of the Jonathan Franzen-Oprah Winfrey debacle that manages to feel starstruck, accompanied by a palpable sense of Kachka’s indebtedness to the current guard at FSG, whose design director is responsible for his book’s cover. But until then, “Hothouse” is a ripping read.

Laura Collins-Hughes can be reached at laura.collinshughes@gmail.com.
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