Martinis And Manuscripts: Publishing In The Good Old Days

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Elissa Schappell is the author of Blueprints for Building Better Girls.

In the good old, bad old days of book publishing, screaming matches happened in public, not online; the boss' philandering was an open secret never leaked to the press, and authors actually had to turn in their manuscripts in order to get money out of their publisher.

It is a testament to Boris Kachka that "Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus & Giroux" is as engrossing as a biography of any major cultural icon.

Fresh out of the Navy, Roger Straus, a pugnacious, aristocratic New York Jew, known for his ascots and acid tongue, enlists the support of veteran editor John Farrar in starting a publishing house. They soon bring aboard Robert Giroux, a proper, working class, closeted New Jersey Catholic, who becomes, in his role as FSG's editor-in-chief, the company's answer to Maxwell Perkins, and the perfect foil for Straus.

FSG brought together some of the biggest literary rock stars of the post-war publishing world, and New York magazine contributing editor Kachka gives us the literary equivalents of Led Zeppelin-style trashed hotel room stories. Here is Jack Kerouac, hopped up on what was probably speed, unrolling the On the Road scroll in front of the stone-faced Giroux (who Kachka suggests had a crush on Jack). Here is Straus making Isaac Bashevis Singer's wife ride in coach as they all fly to Stockholm to accept the Nobel. Here is Giroux, earlier in his career, furious and crestfallen at being forced to go back on his promise to J.D. Salinger to buy Catcher in the Rye. Here is Straus suggesting angrily in an interview that agent Andrew Wylie, aka "The Jackal," had "seduced" Phillip Roth away from him.

Like the host of the most exclusive book party in the world, Kachka does an excellent job of pointing out the most important players in the room at any time in FSG's history. FSG made Jewish writers such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Singer stars; propelled Southern writers such as Flannery O'Connor and Walker Percy; added fuel to the fire of "El Boom," the wave of excitement over Latin American literature that rocketed Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa and Pablo Neruda onto the scene; and set fire to American letters with the New Journalism and its torchbearers Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe.

Unlike Random House or Simon & Schuster, what Straus would have dismissively called "commercial publishers," FSG insisted on publishing only books of the greatest literary merit, damn the remainder bins. This premium on prestige was what mattered at FSG; the company cared for nothing as sordid as profits. And from 1978 to 1995, "FSG published the work of ten out of the eighteen [Nobel Prize] winners."

Pointing out the players isn't enough, though, so thankfully Kachka provides enough heat to earn that "Hothouse" title, reflecting the climate that existed at FSG in the '60s and '70s, what Straus' wife Dorothea affectionately labeled "a sexual sewer." Kachka reports that it wasn't uncommon for Straus to grab a nooner with any of a number of female staffers. "The rumor," Kachka writes, "went that the man who delivered the clean towels to the office on Fridays ... also provided Roger with fresh sheets."

Straus may have been a hound, but he was an intensely loyal one. Next to his marriage to Dorothea, his longest-standing relationship was with Peggy Miller, "Perfect" Peggy, who for 40 years acted as his secretary, mistress and greatest confidante. Kachka characterizes Straus's relationship with Susan Sontag (they may have once had an affair) as symbiotic and paternal. Sontag was allowed to treat the offices of FSG as her own, was advanced cash when she wanted, and was given health insurance. Straus relied on her opinions of other writers, especially when it came to European literature. It was Sontag who told him to pass on Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose in favor of Salvatore Satta's The Day of Judgment, which would sell 2,000 copies to Eco's 50 million worldwide.

What Kachka has done is something neither Straus nor Giroux could do: write the history of the illustrious publishing house. Giroux's finely tooled sense of decorum would never permit him to air FSG's dirty laundry or his own resentments. Perhaps, as Kachka suggests, as the good steward of the legacies of Robert Lowell, Flannery O'Connor and John Berryman, among others, he saw no point in it. Straus, in the last years of his life, set out to write the book but never did. Perhaps it seemed too daunting. Or perhaps he thought he'd never die.

It shouldn't be surprising that the final chapters of the book, devoted to Jonathan Galassi's tenure as publisher, lack the zing and fire of the earlier years. At times Hothouse feels like a magazine feature, a little too inside-baseball for those on the outside, a little yesterday's-news for those in the know. We are all intimately acquainted with the Franzen-Oprah flap, and some of us couldn't care less.

In the end, Kachka acknowledges that there is no way the present-day FSG or any publishing house can possibly compare to that Golden Age: "The old, aristocratic order of Roger Straus has given way to a world of uniformity and accommodation. No longer do emperors roam the halls of Midtown or Union Square, taking their droigt du seigneur and yelling, 'F--- the peasants.' "

Even so, with Hothouse and a gin martini in hand, it's not hard to imagine those good old, bad old days of publishing.

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