The Realm of King Roger

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Roger Straus congratulating Joseph Brodsky on winning the Nobel Prize in Literature, London, 1987

Boris Kachka’s history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, the distinguished publishing house that the late Roger Straus founded in 1945 and ran on a shoestring brilliantly until his death in 2004, is gossip at a very high level: not quite the level of art achieved by Dickens and Proust, who fictionalized their characters, but all the more gripping for being real and meticulously footnoted. I was a decade younger than Roger, a friend for many years, admirer, and occasional rival. Kachka’s Roger is the ebullient, often coarse, actually gentle curator of first-rate talent whom I knew, admired, and liked. For authors, editors, and publishers Hothouse will be catnip for its revelation of the firm’s affairs in both senses: an employee famously said that “tennis is to Scribner’s as sex is to Farrar, Straus.” Roger’s loyal, worldly, forgiving wife Dorothea called the office a “sexual sewer,” and confined her marital role to their handsome town house whose literary evenings were legendary. Roger and Dorothea occupied separate bedrooms.

Readers will be no less fascinated by Kachka’s account of FSG’s dealings with Tom Wolfe, Flannery O’Connor, Philip Roth, Edmund Wilson, Joan Didion, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, John McPhee, Susan Sontag, T.S. Eliot, Seamus Heaney, Pablo Neruda, Carlos Fuentes, Robert Lowell, Scott Turow, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Thomas Friedman among many other FSG authors. The cleverly titled Hothouse is Pepys for our time, an unblinking account of publishing history as it was made by Roger’s firm, the last of America’s major independent publishing houses. Roger would have been thrilled to publish this fine book, including its frequent and deserved criticisms of himself.

Roger’s small, gemlike firm published twenty-five Nobel Prize winners during his fifty-eight-year tenure as founder and president, a breathtaking achievement. He was the last of the great Jewish book publishers whose taste, courage, and energy defined American book publishing for nearly a century as the traditional houses withered away. The first of these pioneers was the profligate genius Horace Liveright, who in the 1920s published The Waste Land, Dreiser’s American Tragedy, Hart Crane, Eugene O’Neill, the early work of Hemingway and Faulkner, and the Modern Library series which introduced three generations of Americans to world literature. His instinct for quality and his libido prefigured Roger’s but he lacked Roger’s iron will to survive.

Liveright, assisted by showgirls and champagne, elevated self-destruction to an art. He lost his company to his rapacious accountant, the odious Arthur Pell, who literally threw him out of the office. He died broke at forty-nine. But his editorial brilliance compounded with his bold marketing panache created a formula and style for his prudent successors—Bennett Cerf and Donald Klopfer at Random House, Alfred and Blanche Knopf, Dick Simon and Max Schuster at Simon and Schuster, and Harold Guinzburg at Viking, whose firms defined the book-publishing century …

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