August 02, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT


Current Status
In Season
Boris Kachka
We gave it a B+

It’s the stuff of fiction: The scion of two wealthy clans thumbs his nose at the family businesses and decides instead to start a publishing house, where over the years he amasses a literary who’s who — Jack Kerouac, Tom Wolfe, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Flannery O’Connor, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and Philip Roth, to name a few — that racks up 25 Nobels.

The dapper Roger Straus, as famous for his potty mouth as his beige Mercedes convertible, roars back to life in this history of Farrar, Straus and Giroux. For six decades Straus cosseted his prize authors and lobbed zingers at anyone who irritated him while presiding over FSG’s famously shabby Manhattan offices, where he kept a stamp on his desk that said ”F— you very much” to imprint upon offending correspondence — and where affairs were so rampant that the place was once dubbed a ”sexual sewer.” It was a brasher, scrappier era of publishing, before agents drove book advances sky-high and the likes of Barnes & Noble and Amazon placed their strangleholds on the industry. Straus could be a jerk and a skinflint (his underpaid staff sometimes had to bring in their own pencils), but he and his editors also believed in the ”care and feeding” of authors, giving such talents as Wolfe and Jonathan Franzen years to work on their books rather than demanding instant turnaround. As e-book prices are pushed ever lower and publishers’ profit margins sliced ever thinner, that isn’t something you’re going to see much of anymore — and it’s literature’s loss.

If Hothouse has a weakness, it’s that Kachka labors too long over the minutiae of contracts and deals. But that’s a minor quibble for a book that evokes not only the rough-and-tumble golden era of publishing but also the man who, as Kachka points out, shaped the postwar intellectual tone in this country through the sheer dint of his brazenness and charm. B+

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