The media roll-out for the history of famed Union Square publishing house Farrar Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka, a book critic for New York magazine, has been as aggressive as you might expect for a book about books written by a guy who writes about books for the media. But all such efforts pale in the face of the review by Robert Gottlieb that appears in this week’s edition of The New Yorker.
After all, a review in The New Yorker is arguably more important — at least for a certain high-brow, uptown set — than one in The New York Times. That magazine single-handedly made Teju Cole's Open City a must read; at the same time, Paul Auster is still recovering from the evisceration The New Yorker dealt out to him in in 2009.
To be fair, before Gottlieb, who has alternatively served as the editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster, Alfred A. Knopf and The New Yorker, got to it, plenty of others have weighed in on Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar Straus & Giroux. The current FSG head Jonathan Galassi wrote in New York that he “loved reading the spiky, spicy evocation of the company’s good old days” and The New York Times featured a question-and-answer session with Kachka, with a review almost certainly to follow. Late last week, a review in The New Republic called the book “entertaining.” And earlier in the summer, we cited it as one the season's books most worth reading.
But Gottlieb's view carries special weight. After all, he is the man responsible for bringing Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 to print and has edited the likes of John Cheever, Salman Rushdie, Jessica Mitford, and so very many others. So what does this giant of the publishing world think of Kachka’s five-year effort? Well, a number of things: that this paean to the old days publishing is “vigorous” and “diverting,” but also “frequently slapdash and overwrought in its determination to show just how hot the house was.”
The hero of Kachka’s book is surely Roger Straus, a product of German-Jewish wealth who, in 1945, “knew that he wanted to be a publisher,” as Gottlieb puts it, “that is, he wanted to have a publishing house of his own.” Joining forces with John Farrar and, crucially, Robert Giroux, he created FSG, which became known for “scooping up an extraordinary list of important writers,” from T.S. Eliot to Flannery O’Connor, from Hannah Arendt to Philip Roth.
There is plenty of intrigue, sex and rancor in Hothouse — Mad Men with books, not to mention a white-suited Tom Wolfe. But this is less a story of books than the men (mostly) who made them. Gottlieb writes:
Kachka doesn’t have much to say about writers as writers, but when there’s gossip in the air he’s on top of it—pages and pages, for instance, are devoted to the notorious Jonathan Franzen–Oprah Winfrey spat. On the whole, though, it’s the early history that’s freshest and most instructive.
That’s understandable. After the German group Holtzbrinck purchased FSG in 1993, it could no longer lay claim to the status of an iconoclast. And, today, authors are about as loyal to their publishing houses as basketball players are to their teams, taking their talents to, say, Random House or Penguin or Penguin Random House when the price is right.
Gottlieb also says that “another difficulty is the tone of the writing, which is again and again overexcited and/or inexact” — though he concludes that Hothouse is a "valuable effort."
Another, more practical concern was voiced by Kara Bloomgarden-Smoke in The New York Observer last week: “ the main problem with a book about book publishing … is that it’s hard to imagine the market for it.” The aggressive marketing for the book underscores Simon & Schuster’s desire to make the case that this book is relevant beyond the editorial offices of Midtown. Here’s to hoping they’re right.
Photo of Boris Kachka: Mia Tran, courtesy of Simon & Schuster