Guest Essay: "Hothouse" Author Boris Kachka
— Five Things That Haven't Changed Since Gentlemen Giants Walked the Earth
Boris Kachka spent five years researching and writing the tumultuous and messy history of publishing powerhouse Farrar, Straus and Giroux, which has published the works of T. S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Jack Kerouac, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, Philip Roth, and Jonathan Franzen. In part, this is the story of the two very different, ambitious, brilliant men, Roger Straus and Robert Giroux, who discovered and championed novelists whose work became part of American culture. It’s also the story of the combative, lucrative, sexually-charged world of publishing. Junot Diaz has called Hothouse "Mad Men for the literary world."
Hothouse, my cultural history of the great, once-independent publisher Farrar, Straus and Giroux, abounds with all kinds of outmoded habits--from sexual shenanigans to paperback auctions--that don’t really cut it in the modern book world. Flamboyant, wealthy and crass Roger Straus and the brilliant, hidebound editor Robert Giroux, publishers of Isaac Singer, Susan Sontag, Tom Wolfe, Robert Lowell, and Flannery O’Connor--25 Nobelists in all--might have had a hard go of the Fifty-Shades era. What might surprise readers, though, is that a few very fundamental things haven’t really changed much at all.
Everyone needs a bestseller once in a while. How did Farrar, Straus grow to become America’s hottest and most prestigious publisher of the sixties? It put out Look Younger, Live Longer, Gayelord Hauser’s blockbuster fad-diet book, in 1951. And in 1965, alongside Joan Didion and Carlos Fuentes, it published Sammy Davis, Jr.’s tell-not-quite-all, Yes I Can. Venerable catalogs throughout the firm’s history list cookbooks, shareholder vanity projects, and 1974’s Number One With a Bullet. Scott Turow funded FSG for half of a generation. So the next time you flip through an Elizabeth Bishop collection, think about how old Gayelord Hauser helped make it possible.
Everything is marketing—or nothing is. Roger Straus and many other FSGers past and present, young and old, had an instinctive disdain for the word “marketing” and what it stood for--the supremacy of hype, accounting, and focus groups over substance. But Straus’s entire life could be taught in marketing classes. Every party he threw, every enemy he made, and every colorful quote he gave to the press looks in retrospect like a masterstroke of marketing for his books and for the enterprise of FSG. He was the hype-man par excellence, and he knew how to get free ink. His successors have largely figured out how to do it in a very different era—with Facebook and Twitter and editor’s letters.
Agents have been the new publishers for a while.Aside from industry consolidation, no shift was more important, at least in literary publishing, than the agent’s growing authority. Andrew Wylie took Philip Roth away from Roger Straus and extorted higher advances even for dear friends like Susan Sontag and Ian Frazier. Roger hated him for it--until he needed him again--but there were bigger forces than even the formidable Wylie at work. Father figures like Roger faded, and money gained importance as writers lost support systems like deep-pocketed magazines and flush universities. Check any roster of agents today, and you’ll find lots of former editors and publishers.
How do you make the muse laugh? Set a deadline. If there’s anything FSG’s greatest in-house success stories have in common, it’s that they were written well past their deadlines and barely resembled the outdated catalog copy originally written for them. Tom Wolfe alone had two of those. He first contracted for a novel in 1964 and published The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1987. And The Right Stuff, his journalistic tour de force on the space program, started out as a squib on the moon landing and made an appearance in nine out of 13 semi-annual catalogs between 1973 and 1979. Finally published just before the turn of the decade, it proved well worth the wait. And just look at some of today’s literary bestsellers, especially at FSG: Franzen and Eugenides take nearly a decade per novel. (Full disclosure: I received two deadline extensions on Hothouse.)
Publishing pop isn’t easy, even when you want to. The modern FSG aims to be as strong in nonfiction and even some smart genres as it’s traditionally been in literary fiction. As a part of Macmillan, it has the resources to do so. It’s had mixed success--striking gold with Thomas Friedman but mostly striking out with thriller series. They’ll keep trying, but it won’t be easy to be everything for everyone. Sarah Crichton, with her own relatively commercial imprint there, made a hit out of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone. But the noble philosophy doesn’t apply to the whole range of books. Sometimes you have to admit that fun books that work take serious thought--and not always the kind you’re used to.