There’s no denying that book publishing has weathered some blows in these first years of the new millennium, what with the closing of many brick-and-mortar stores, the rise of eBooks and the sagging economy in general. A more vibrant, hopeful era in the book trade is depicted in Boris Kachka’s Hothouse, the story of the eccentric, scrappy publishing house Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Started after the Second World War by Guggenheim heir Roger Straus Jr., FSG was able to hold onto its independence for decades, as other publishers were acquired by corporations, consolidated and homogenized. Straus’ fiefdom did more than survive—it thrived, with an extraordinary share of Nobel laureates and other literary giants on its list. Despite the house’s apt reputation for tightfistedness when it came to both author advances and employee salaries, many remained fiercely loyal to FSG, staying put even when more money was in the offing elsewhere.

As Kachka makes clear, the reasons for this unlikely success were two very different men: publisher Straus and editor Robert Giroux. Flamboyant and daring, Straus exuded a confidence instilled by his privileged upbringing. The self-effacing Giroux, son of a factory foreman, was the antithesis of the showman Straus, but no less daring in his quiet way. It would be Giroux’s literary tastes that would shape the FSG list, while Straus’ keen business sense consistently kept the company afloat against all odds.

At its famously low-rent headquarters on Union Square, where rabbit-warren offices and linoleum tile floors were a stark contrast to the posher digs of its uptown rivals, FSG launched and/or nurtured the careers of such writers as Susan Sontag, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Elizabeth Bishop, Tom Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth—the roster is seemingly endless—and in the process turned out some of the most enduring books of the era. The editors whom Straus and Giroux handpicked and brought on board, including Henry Robbins, Michael di Capua, Pat Strachan and Jonathan Galassi (who is still at the helm), comprise a veritable who’s-who of American publishing in the latter half of the 20th century.

Amid all the highbrow literary strivings, however, it is the more earthy drama at FSG that drives Hothouse and broadens its appeal. As Kachka tells it, Roger Straus rarely met a female underling he didn’t wish to bed, and he set a tone of sexual laissez faire that permeated the company and ended more than one marriage, though not Straus’ own enduring one. When his only son, Roger III, was getting divorced and having an affair with another FSG employee, the disapproving elder Straus told him that marriage was about family, and sex and love could be sought outside it. The whole scenario makes “Mad Men” seem practically chaste.

The behind-the-scenes stories of Straus’ celebrated machinations to keep FSG free and maintain its prestige are no less fascinating for the window they provide into the ways publishing has changed over time. Competing with the much deeper pockets of its corporate-owned competitors, FSG needed wiles to survive, and Straus had those in spades. He was reluctant to compromise in a deal, and afterward always reinvented history to paint himself the victor. Beneath the flash and ego, though, Kachka shows Straus to be genuine in his love for the company, the books it produced and especially the authors it published.

“Not only was it greater than the sum of its sales, it punched higher above its weight than any other publisher,” Kachka says of FSG, which he rightly likens to The New Yorker as a cultural bellwether. Hothouse is an essential history of publishing’s little engine that could.

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