Boris Kachka, interviewed by Dawn Raffel
The author of Hothouse on maverick publishing, literary "serfdom," the perils of patronage, and the care and feeding of genius
In his newly-released book, Hothouse, Boris Kachka takes us back in time and behind the scenes at iconic, genius-producing, and sometimes crazy-making publisher Farrar, Strauss & Giroux.
Led by pugilistic visionary Roger Straus, Jr. (1917-2004) and brilliant, reticent Robert Giroux (1914-2008), the house published Susan Sontag, Philip Roth, John McPhee, Soviet dissident Joseph Brodsky, lightening rod Harold Brodkey, electric Kool Aid Acid tester Tom Wolfe, Joan Didion, and a fairytale forest worth of other literary giants.
While loyalty often was huge, advances were usually puny, and the editors sometimes doled out emergency payments—and emotional aid—to writers in dire straits. As other independent houses were sold to corporate monoliths starting in the sixties, FSG held tight. It wasn't until 1993 that Roger Straus sold a majority interest (to Georg von Holtzbrinck Publishing Group)—because he, like Alfred A. Knopf decades earlier, decided not to leave the business to his son.
Kachka continues the story of FSG under current publisher and president Jonathan Galassi. Literary heavyweights Jonathan Franzen, Karl Marlantes, Lydia Davis, Jeffrey Eugenides, and many more call the house home—but in a vastly changed marketplace, where agents demand higher advances, authors and editors feel freer to switch allegiances, and the ground beneath the book word constantly shifts.
Over coffee a hot summer day, I caught up with Kachka, and asked about the behind-the-scenes story of his behind-the-scenes book.
What sparked your interest in FSG? You've been reporting about publishing [for New York Magazine] for a long time.
I got assigned a long story that ran in the fall of 2008 about difficulties in publishing, the coming of e-books, and all of that. A little piece of that story was about Tom Wolfe leaving FSG after 40 years. The reason was that Roger [Straus] had died, and so Wolfe’s friend, his protector, wasn't there anymore.
So an agent, Jane Dystel, called me up the week the story came out, and she said, "I have an idea for you. Bob Giroux just died. Take a look at that, take a look at Straus's obit. I think there's a book in this." I was very skeptical because it seemed like such a narrow topic. But I talked to a few people, including Lorin Stein, who was an editor at FSG, and now is at the Paris Review. He said, “This is a great opportunity to tell a cultural history."
One of the things I thought was interesting is you debunked the myth of the good old days as Xanadu. On the one hand, editors had more autonomy—and an editor could nurture an author, even if his first book didn’t sell. But there was also a lot of nepotism and infighting.
I like to think of history as tradeoffs. The idea that there's progress or decline…sometimes I fall prey to that framework in thinking about the world, but I try to check it, and look at what used to work and what works now and what's better and what's worse. You can usually see that something has been lost and something has been gained.
What do you think was lost?
I think what was lost was the certainty on a good or great writer's part that he or she would find a champion, whether an agent or an editor or a publisher, at least one person who would treat them like an artist and protect them in some way. Editors move around more now. Publishers tend to be more faceless. Maybe the agent still fills that role in a lot of cases, but it's a different transaction. My agent has taken amazing risks on my behalf, and my editor—I can't praise him enough. But I think I've been a little lucky. Not to generalize, but I don't know if that's a common experience.
Well, I don't know. What do you think has been gained?
Efficiency, I guess. Flexibility. The ability to scale up or down when the book comes out. All those technical things. And it's good that writers get paid what they're worth. They're able to sometimes, if they're lucky, get paid enough to be independent, to not have their pay doled out. I think that's more the way it used to be, that it was a serf-like model, especially at FSG.
From what you described, it almost seemed like the editor was a nursemaid, like there was this idea that writers were dysfunctional characters. For instance, Jean Stafford was falling apart, and Giroux would go out there and find her a shrink and give her some extra money. Writers were sort of infantilized.
I recently interviewed Sterling Lord, and he said, "Well, my job was to take care of my writers.” So he would go out and soothe Jack Kerouac. I don't think an agent or editor would do that anymore, and maybe that’s not a bad thing.
Well, I don't know. What's the alternative? I mean, that the writer just falls apart and the people who live healthier thrive? Or they write a memoir about it later? I don't know. I guess you just want to know that someone will be there for you. But like I said, there are things lost and things gained, too.
Publishers really want the author to be more of a business person. In the past, the publicity was considered sort of icky, right? Well, it has to happen, but the authors shouldn't be dirtying their hands with it.
It's a shifting of burdens. I feel like the self-publishing model … I was talking to an agent who said that it's a bubble, and I'm not sure if that's true or not. These genre writers are becoming overnight successes at self-publishing. But there are all sorts of things they have to do that maybe they shouldn't have to do.
There's a reason we live in a world of divided labor. Traditional publishing, whether it was good or not, was designed to let the writer be the writer, when they paid him enough. But there were other support systems, too. John McPhee received most of his payment from The New Yorker.
It was extraordinary the way The New Yorker bankrolled writers. I remember reading Lillian Ross's memoir, and she was talking about—she was on an assignment where she was living in a hotel in Beverly Hills for months on The New Yorker's dime, and she would play tennis, and she'd go swimming, and then she'd work on her article a little bit.
You can feel that talking to Renata Adler, too, right? And it's kind of like she was marooned when they took away her contract.
One of the things I thought was interesting was that both Knopf and FSG were sold for family reasons—because of family disputes—as much as financial issues.
I guess it shows you how hard it is for kids to work with their parents. Part of the balance of the book is to show what was special about FSG, but also to show what was representative. Publishing started out walking this line between patronage and business. One of the problems with patronage is that it doesn't always work from generation to generation. Knopf sold early, and that was more a function of the elder Knopf being old much sooner than Roger Straus was. But really, when Knopf was sold to Random House and Random House was sold to RCA, I think, in '65, that was the beginning of it, really, for all the houses.
Do you think it was inevitable?
Yeah, I think so. Everything is consolidated. That's just the way that the world's going. I hope that's part of the story, too.
You really see how everything in the culture changed. You were born in the Soviet Union. Were you raised there?
No, I was two-and-a-half when we came over.
Where were you born?
In Moldova, which was famous for its pogroms in the early Twentieth Century. Luckily, we got here pretty early.
Did that in any way inform some of your interest in FSG? You wrote that some of Roger Straus's foreign representatives were also probably CIA operatives in the Cold War.
I have a slightly greater interest in Russia than other parts of the world, but not intensely. It's not really a personal feeling. The fact is, FSG got behind the Iron Curtain early with the writers they chose. Which I don't think has too much to do with the CIA. I think Roger didn't necessarily care about that stuff so much.
So how do you think Roger Straus would feel about the fact that your book is published by Simon & Schuster?
That's a really good question. I don't think he would have helped promote it, as they have. That's the thing about Roger, he was not a flexible guy. No, I don't think Roger would have liked it. But I think Roger recognized change, too.
Were you intimidated by having to deal with the people in this book who are still living?
Yeah. It's like it's a small world, but it's a world that looms large for the people in it, which is both to my advantage and my disadvantage. But most people—surprisingly, even people who wouldn't talk to me—are happy about the book. The only complaints that I've gotten are from people who say—it's like that Woody Allen joke, you know, that the food was so bad, and such small portions. It's when I highlight one moment in a twenty-year career, and it's not necessarily a positive one. But it's because I have a narrative to tell, you know? And every narrative has major and minor characters.
Who was unhappy? I'm just curious.
I don't know. I probably shouldn't say.
All right. Let it go.
You could probably figure it out.
Are you a particular fan of FSG books? I mean, it had to have been more than just the agent suggesting—
Like, is there a personal connection? I just really loved the whole of it, the sixties stuff in particular. Sontag and Wolfe, and I always loved John McPhee, and Didion. I feel like that was a moment of such energy.
How do you feel about the future someplace like FSG?
I think it's probably going to be fine, but it's going to be harder to pin down a sensibility specific to them or to Knopf or anybody else. It'll be a little bit more interchangeable. So you lose a little bit of a sense of taste and variety, that you have an agent who knows your kind of book is going to be taken better care of here than there, because they're really good at this one thing.
What do you want people to take away from the book?
I wanted to write a good story. I hope I did. And I hope it has some scope to it. It's a little piece of history.