Inside FSG: An Interview with Boris Kachka

AT THE END OF JUNE, I caught up with Boris Kachka at a bar in Brooklyn to talk about his highly anticipated debut book, Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America’s Most Celebrated Publishing House, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. As a contributing editor at New York magazine, Kachka has written frequently on literature and culture, and his latest project takes us deep into the heart of the publishing industry.

Hothouse is a “biography” of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the most esteemed publishing houses in the United States. Luminaries like Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Tom Wolfe, Susan Sontag, and Jonathan Franzen rank among FSG’s authors, and the house boasts a staggering 25 Nobel Prize winners, including T. S. Eliot, Pablo Neruda, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. But rarefied, literary, and prestigious are not the only adjectives applicable to this house. As Kachka demonstrates, the story of FSG makes for a rollicking read, full of gossip, sex (the house was once referred to as a “sexual sewer”), and animated characters. From its founding in the 1940s through to the end of the century, Roger Straus, Jr. was at the helm. (In the mid-1990s he sold FSG to a German publishing conglomerate, though he remained attached to the company in one form or another until his death in 2004.) Straus was a passionate man, dedicated to his work and authors, and also a fiery personality who owned custom stamps that read “FUCK YOU VERY MUCH” and “IT’S JUST A PIMPLE ON THE PRICK OF PROGRESS.”

But Hothouse is more than just a history of FSG: it also offers a vivid look at postwar intellectual and literary culture, bringing to life decades past at a moment when the book industry faces an uncertain future. Kachka and I discussed the book, the legendary Roger Straus, Jr., and the state of book publishing today.

            – Lauren Walsh


Lauren Walsh: How did you come to write about FSG?

Boris Kachka: In 2008 I wrote a story for New York magazine about the transformations that were then going on in the book world. It turned into a rather gloomy piece about the death of publishing. One little aspect of my story was about how human relationships between editors and writers were no longer as important as they had been, and an illustration of that was the fact that Tom Wolfe had left FSG after 42 years because Roger Straus was no longer there. (He had died.) An agent, Jane Dystel, picked up on that detail and called to tell me that Robert Giroux had just died, and suggested that I might be interested in doing a longer project, focusing on FSG. I wasn’t sure about this, though I did want to do something more in-depth than what I’d been doing at New York.

So I called Lorin Stein — he’s now the editor of Paris Review and was, at the time, an editor at FSG — and he started telling me a little bit about Roger Straus and Bob Giroux, about how it had been back in the old days. He didn’t know that much, but he knew enough that I started to realize there was stuff for me to dig into, not only in terms of the business but in terms of personal relationships, and that this was really a story about postwar culture, tied up with the Navy, World War II, and the G.I. Bill. So I began to think this was actually a really good idea.

LW: Hothouse spends some time on the figure of John Farrar, and more on Robert Giroux, but the most attention is given to Roger Straus, Jr. Why?

BK: To some extent, this is about the personalities involved. In 1945 Straus convinced Farrar to go in with him on a publishing venture. At the time, Farrar was in the middle or even toward the end of his career, and he wouldn’t have done it without Roger. Straus was the dynamo behind it. Giroux came in later, in 1955, and he’s important, too. Without Giroux, you wouldn’t have the seriousness of the house. But you wouldn’t have the energy of the house without Straus. The complement of those two people made it work. But ultimately Roger was always the majority shareholder, so he always made the decisions. He was always the boss. If somebody made a decision he disagreed with, he would veto it. John Farrar brought in a lot of writers, but in the end he wound up being a salaried employee, just like any other employee. We’re talking about an era of independently owned companies, and if you’re looking at an independent, you have to look at where the ownership is. In essence, it was a consortium of shareholders in which at least the very large plurality, usually the majority, was Roger Straus.

LW: Those figures are all dead, yet you paint such a vibrant picture of the house when they were alive. We get gritty details, the ups and downs, biographical backgrounds, and gossipy tales from insiders. In terms of some of the transgressions and improprieties, did you find that interviewees were forthcoming?

BK: Well, it depends on which transgressions you’re talking about. In terms of Roger’s transgressions, I have to give a hat tip to his son, Rog, also known as Young Roger — who is now almost 70 years old! They had a complicated relationship, but he saw that this project could honor his father while giving enough sense of the shadows of Straus’s personality. The general impression that Straus had a lot of affairs, that he sometimes turned the office into his “personal harem,” is not something that Rog contradicted, and he gave me details of Straus’s home life that helped to fill in the picture.

It was a different time. I talked to people who were at FSG in the 1970s, who openly, or sometimes semi-openly, admitted that they had affairs. In some ways, the mix of life, work, and sex was a lot looser back then, and people were more open about it, especially now that they no longer work at the house; it doesn’t matter to them anymore, they don’t have a stake in it.

For instance, the fact that someone was willing to talk about having had an affair with Roger Straus, and what kind of lover he was, surprised me. When I was interviewing, people didn’t necessarily have a hang-up about saying, “I got ahead by sleeping with so-and-so.” Sometimes it was simply, “Yeah, I slept with an editor who was in a position of power, and we had fun. I knew he was married.”

LW: Your anecdotes aren’t just about affairs. There are betrayals and resentments, too. It’s unsurprising that there is competition between publishing houses, and even acrimony when an editor leaves for another house or an author defects to another publisher. But were you surprised by the extent of Straus’s ability to hold a grudge? For instance, after Philip Roth left FSG for more money in 1989, Straus held such a strong, public, and permanent grudge that some people thought it prevented Roth’s possible return to FSG. Was this typical Straus?

BK: No, I think he got worse as he got older. Straus found himself on the defensive against certain writers who he felt betrayed him, and he took it personally. Yet, what made the company work was that quality of taking things personally. He felt intimately invested in the writers, in the relationships he had with them. It didn’t matter if he understood every nuance of a Philip Roth book. The fact was, he understood that Roth was a genius, and he believed in him. Then Roth left because he wanted more money, and Simon & Schuster was willing to pay up. Roth obviously had his reasons, not only money but independence, and I don’t fault him for leaving. I’m not in a position to judge, anyway.

What’s key is that the way Straus was used to working with writers was changing, and I think that what he did seemed more irrational in the 1980s and ’90s because it wasn’t working as well. There was more tension because, by this point, writers had more leverage; there are agents to back them up, other courses to take, other publishers with more money to spend on marketing. And a lot of writers started thinking, “What am I actually getting here in return for the Roger Straus ‘discount,’ for letting this one publisher pay me below market rate?” In other words, how much does the prestige of being at FSG really outweigh the benefits of bigger houses, for instance Simon & Schuster, that can just throw money at advertisements?

LW: And yet it sounds like some of the advantages of being at FSG have to do with the way the house was personally invested in its authors. Are we past that era, when a house will support a writer through alcoholism or wildly missed deadlines? And if so, is that for the better or the worse?

BK: I don’t think there’s as much tolerance for that today, and I think it’s for the worse. That’s the cost of not knowing your writers personally. Of course, there are counterexamples. There’s the case of Harold Brodkey, who just didn’t deliver anything for years and years, and FSG eventually had to let him go. It took another 20 years for him to produce his novel, and it’s probably a good thing that FSG dropped him. He was a drag on their bottom line. But think of all the writers who were a drag on FSG’s bottom line in the 1970s — would the house have been better if it had cut loose Tom Wolfe and Susan Sontag, both of whom stretched deadlines? Writers have their own schedules. There’s always something gained and something lost when things change, but with this move away from the intensely personal relationships, something is definitely lost.

This is not just a nostalgic thing. If you understand your writers, you understand what they’re capable of. You know whether they’re full of shit or they actually will produce something eventually and are just being perfectionists. There are a lot of reasons why writers miss deadlines. Jack Kerouac, who drank excessively, died pretty young and never really lived up to the success of On the Road. But things panned out for other writers. Tom Wolfe wasn’t off doing drugs, but he didn’t want to publish a book until he knew what was in it. I don’t think The Right Stuff would have been nearly as good 10 years earlier as it was in 1979.

LW: Do you think FSG was successful and did such great work in part because it was not a buttoned-down environment?

BK: Yes, I think so. There was a lack of bureaucracy, although eventually that was to their detriment. They became antiquated really fast when people started using, for example, computerized spreadsheets. Young Roger worked at FSG for a while, and at some point he asked, “How do you price a book?” It’s a very basic question. How much you charge for a book should be based on a lot of metrics. But his father’s approach was, “Ah, you just heft it in your hand.”

Even so, I do think that the best work environments probably tend to be the ones where people feel a little more than a transactional investment in the place. In a way, I think that’s what the tech companies are trying to replicate today. Google gives you free tacos, and part of the goal is to keep you there. But it’s also to give you a little bit of the family feeling: they’re taking care of me so I should take care of them. It was a similar thing at FSG.

LW: Your book is a history of FSG, but also, more broadly, a portrait of American literary and intellectual culture in the decades after the war. What are some salient points you want your reader to understand about that moment in history?

BK: I think the main point is that FSG in the mid-century was very much at the center of American culture. Today, publishing and books are considered a noble calling outside the pop mainstream, like academia. But in order to understand how FSG came to be, you have to understand that, at the time, great minds and big money gravitated to books. Roger Straus could have his pick of careers, but he wanted to do something bold and interesting that also satisfied his need to be respected. He turned down jobs in newspapers and in Hollywood in order to publish books. Giroux turned down opportunities in academia, radio journalism, and film criticism in order to edit books. Celebrities wanted to know Robert Lowell and Mary McCarthy and Jack Kerouac. Joan Crawford was star-struck when she met T. S. Eliot on a beach. Giroux was buddies with Jackie O., who was a book editor for a while. And if people didn’t read every stanza Lowell wrote, at least they pretended to.

There are all sorts of reasons for that: the G.I. Bill, the ’50s moment of centrist consensus, the paperback revolution. You could argue — because no one likes to sound like an old fogey — that more books are published and sold today than ever before. But what’s relevant to my book is that the sort of stuff people read back then was, very often, what FSG wanted to publish. Nothing too radical, but nothing too dumb. It’s what we now would consider “literature.” Then, culture splintered in the late ’60s, and the culture business had to follow suit, and FSG became one niche publisher among many.

LW: Hothouse prompts questions about the publishing industry in a general sense. For example, you discuss the shift in FSG’s ownership — from mid-size independent to corporate-owned. Does that shift mirror changes that have occurred across the industry?

BK: Yes, but I think FSG was in a special position. You have a house like Knopf that went corporate a lot earlier, and managed to maintain some semblance of a separate personality for surprisingly long. (Someone somewhere is going to write a great book about them someday!) There’s New Directions, which is still independent, and they got a lot of books that FSG didn’t get that were more subversive or avant-garde. Meanwhile, Grove Press, which was merged into Grove Atlantic, a larger independent, has its own story. But in general, there was this trend of increasing consolidation and all of these separate companies became imprints. I think that’s part of the drama of my book. FSG was behind the times — but in a good way, in that they didn’t sell out.

So what did they manage to accomplish in those 20 years between Knopf selling out and them selling out? It’s an open question, I think. In the late 1960s, when Knopf was owned by someone else and they published a lot of great books, FSG was still independent and managed to do things their own way. Alfred Knopf, back when he was still in charge, cut Isaac Bashevis Singer’s first novel to shreds. Singer was so pissed off he left Knopf and never looked back. FSG would probably not have done such a thing. That was before Knopf became part of a large corporation, but it does speak to the differences between the two houses. Maybe FSG just had more respect for writers like Singer.

LW: FSG has been corporate-owned for about the past 20 years. Have things changed in terms of what kinds of books it can or does take on?

BK: I think FSG has a little more breathing room than other corporate-owned publishing houses because of its legacy. It can acquire poetry, whatever poetry the current president and publisher Jonathan Galassi likes. It can keep publishing the same authors, Péter Nádas and other international authors, it has been publishing all along. But it now has to justify those with a couple of bestsellers, just like Knopf does. Maybe not quite on that level, but it has to have a Thomas Friedman or Ishmael Beah, or even Jonathan Franzen or Jeffrey Eugenides, who do literary bestsellers. FSG needs that. They always did to an extent, but they need it even more today, that is, they need a better balance between prestige fiction and big sellers. Part of the challenge of the future is figuring out what that balance is. I try to address that in the last chapter: how much do you have to change your operation to sell those bestsellers? For instance, do you need a best-selling thriller? And if you’re going to have a best-selling thriller, how much do you have to spend on that? FSG is not used to spending that kind of money, on advances or, especially, on marketing.

LW: In your 2008 New York article that was the starting point for Hothouse, you wrote: “Nobody knows where the readers are [today], or how to connect with them … What readers want — and whether it’s better to cater to their desires or try harder to shape them — remains a hotly contested issue.” Any updates to this that you can offer five years and one book later?

BK: I would like to see readers’ desires shaped. I think that’s the job of the editor, the publisher, and the writer. They have to consider this problem of people not reading enough, or reading what we might consider to be the wrong things. If people are only reading Fifty Shades of Grey, don’t blame them for it. Try to give them something better. And what does that mean? Where is the halfway mark where you try to meet them? How much are you leading, how much are you following? Those are all open questions. But I do think, as I said, that the burden is on the writer and the publisher and the editor. If they, in each of their roles, believe in something enough, then they will make that effort to market it, to publish it, to make it good enough in all sorts of respects, and make it readable enough. So I think the job of reaching readers is of the utmost importance no matter what form — whether as an e-book or print, that doesn’t matter.

Two anecdotes of note on this: In his column in Entertainment Weekly in April 2007, Stephen King criticized an FSG book cover, saying it aimed to convey a tone of “too smart for the likes of you.” It was Misha Berlinski’s Fieldwork, and it was later nominated for a National Book Award. Not long after, in 2008, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote an article for Harper’s in which she said, essentially, that highbrow publishers should just forget about readers, or give up on lowerbrow readers. But Lorin Stein, at the time at FSG, resisted both of these tendencies, effectively saying that it’s the publishing house’s job to bring readers in, and it’s also the house’s job to keep standards as high as possible. I think that’s an important mission.

LW: Hothouse is, clearly, a book for people in the industry. How do you think it will appeal to those beyond the publishing world?

BK: I think anyone who wants to understand where great books come from will be interested. These books don’t come out of thin air. Something made them happen, and it wasn’t just one person behind each book. There was an industry that produced that literature.

I would also like to think that the questions of how culture changed in the 1960s are of interest. We like to imagine that hypocrisy belongs to the last generation, but I think that every generation makes mistakes: they’re just different kinds of mistakes. Roger Straus made certain types of mistakes, but he had a kind of integrity that we don’t necessarily have anymore. He believed in family and he believed in loyalty. Despite his affairs, Straus would never have considered the idea of ending his marriage, and he was very upset when Rog and his wife divorced, because in Straus’s view, you keep the family together no matter what. So he believed in certain values that are a little bit less evident now. We’re a more open culture, but we’re also a looser one, which is to say that we don’t necessarily believe in standing by people the way we used to. This is why writing about history is great; I like thinking about the things that were gained and the things that were lost. It’s important to go back and to understand there isn’t one simple progression: things are not getting worse and things are not getting better. They’re just changing, and we have to understand how, so that we can hold on to the things that are important.


Lauren Walsh teaches literature and writing at Eugene Lang College The New School for Liberal Arts.