You can keep the Kardashians. Move over, George; the newest Windsor is yesterday's news. Those readers interested in pursuing the higher gossip may have found their purveyor of choice in Boris Kachka's publishing world tell-all Hothouse: The Art of Survival and the Survival of Art at America's Most Celebrated Publishing House. Kachka has arrived peddling a steamer trunk's worth of juicy nuggets about Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG), the quasi-legendary American publishing house of Solzhenitsyn, Sontag, Vargas Llosa and O'Connor. But gossip this is; Kachka rarely stints on describing the inner workings of what founder Roger Straus's wife Dorothea referred to as "a sexual sewer".
Before proceeding into the sewer, let us first take a tour of the publisher's office. Roger Straus Jr was a scion of the Guggenheim family, a seeming wastrel who, after serving in the Second World War in the US navy's magazine and book section, began an imprint of his own. Straus was a crafty business mind but not much of a reader, so for the more specialised work of selecting and moulding writers, he brought in the editor Robert Giroux from Harcourt, Brace. Giroux was in many ways Straus's inverse: a Catholic to Straus's Jew, quietly gay to Straus's many extramarital tanglings. Most importantly for the future of FSG, Giroux had an eye for attracting and cultivating writers, bringing in many of the esteemed names he had worked with at Harcourt, Brace, and then complementing them with a glittering array of critically acclaimed novelists and poets such as Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud and Elizabeth Bishop.
FSG offered an attractive bargain to its favoured writers: steady publication, a stream of work as readers and scouts, and the imprimatur of a noble house in exchange for lower-than-average advances. Employees, too, settled for less: "They worked in gloves in the winter when the heat broke down; they jerry-rigged the paper towel dispenser roll in the ladies' room with an oversize dinner fork; they repaired their own desks and bought their own pencils and made sacrifices in their lives that well-born Roger W Straus Jr would never have to make, all for the freedom to publish what they loved, and little else." One FSG employee was caught stealing books from the office and selling them to local bookstores, and had a legendary rejoinder to Straus on being confronted: "I'll stop if you give me a raise."
The privilege of publishing Edmund Wilson and John Berryman required certain calculated concessions to the public's taste. FSG may have been the house of TS Eliot, but it was also the publisher of record for Sammy Davis Jr's Yes I Can. "Had I not published certain books," Straus told the theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel's daughter, "I could not have afforded to publish your father and several other distinguished poets, philosophers and novelists." For all of FSG's loyalty to high literature, most of its bills were paid in those early years by an exercise manual, as in later years blockbuster novels by Scott Turow and Tom Wolfe would subsidise much of the house's less profitable work.