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

Boris Kach­ka
  • Review
By – January 28, 2014

Far­rar, Straus and Giroux is one of America’s most dis­tin­guished pub­lish­ing hous­es, with a long list of Nobel Prize win­ners and emi­nent authors. A force in liter­ary pub­lish­ing, FSG was also a force in the per­son of its founder, Roger Straus, scion of a promi­nent New York fam­i­ly, high school dropout, and fierce fight­er for FSG and its inde­pen­dence in the years when pub­lish­ing became a high-stakes business.

Boris Kach­ka, a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at New York mag­a­zine, casts FSG as the hottest house in New York” and reports its sto­ry in a sim­i­lar­ly breath­less style. Con­cen­trat­ing on per­son­al­i­ties — and it is hard to avoid the over­pow­er­ing per­son­al­i­ty of Roger Straus — Kach­ka some­times short­changes the nuts and bolts of FSG, the day-in, day-out work­ings and work­ers that forged its dis­tinc­tion for bed­room and back­room gos­sip. Yes, FSG’s offices were dingy and its staff under­paid even by pub­lish­ing stan­dards, but the house attract­ed and retained high­ly tal­ent­ed peo­ple, most notably Robert Giroux, the G of FSG. A qui­et man ded­i­cat­ed to his craft and his authors, he brought a list of lead­ing lit­er­ary fig­ures to the house — Robert Low­ell, Thomas Mer­ton, Flan­nery O’Connor, T. S. Eliot, Bernard Mala­mud, Jack Ker­ouac. Giroux was instru­mental in hir­ing Hen­ry Rob­bins, who in his brief time at FSG brought in Tom Wolfe, Joan Did­ion and John Gre­go­ry Dunne, Don­ald Barthelme, Grace Paley. And Roger Straus also played an impor­tant role in build­ing the FSG list; among his authors were Abra­ham Joshua Hes­chel, Susan Son­tag, and Edmund Wil­son. Through for­eign scouts and con­nec­tions at the annu­al Frank­furt Book Fair, Straus added Car­los Fuentes, Alek­sandr Solzhen­it­syn, and Pablo Neru­da to the FSG list, and through the acqui­si­tion of small pub­lish­ing hous­es came Isaac Bashe­vis Singer and Her­mann Hesse. This is an absorb­ing sto­ry, deserv­ing of more atten­tion than it receives in this telling.

For any­one who worked in the indus­try dur­ing this time of change when large pub­lish­ers, backed by the cor­po­ra­tions that bought them, paid large advances to authors rep­re­sent­ed by aggres­sive agents, Straus’s fight to pre­serve FSG’s inde­pen­dence and via­bil­i­ty in the face of these chal­lenges and his loy­al­ty to his staff and its loy­al­ty to FSG are reminders of what pub­lish­ing had been. But his strug­gles against these two evils, per­son­i­fied in his eyes by Richard Sny­der of Simon & Schus­ter — iron­i­cal­ly, the pub­lish­er of Hot­house—and Andrew Wylie, a new-style agent who demand­ed pre­vi­ous­ly unheard-of advances, are not told with the same verve as the juici­er parts of the sto­ry. This is per­haps inevitable, as was the sale of FSG when Straus’s son left the com­pa­ny. The pace of the sto­ry slows as Straus sells his com­pa­ny in one phone call, and FSG becomes part of a large pub­lish­ing enter­prise. But thanks to his efforts the com­pa­ny sur­vives in capa­ble hands, still pub­lish­ing books of high lit­er­ary qual­i­ty and impor­tance under the imprint FSG, ini­tials that are a trib­ute to its founders. Bib­li­og­ra­phy, illus­tra­tions, index, notes.

Maron L. Wax­man, retired edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor, spe­cial projects, at the Amer­i­can Muse­um of Nat­ur­al His­to­ry, was also an edi­to­r­i­al direc­tor at Harper­Collins and Book-of-the-Month Club.

Discussion Questions