Making sausage at Farrar, Straus & Giroux: Hothouse by Boris Kachka

hothouse“By the way, did you read Hothouse when it came out last year?” I asked a  bookish friend in an email this week. “It took me ages to slog through the introduction so I’m hesitant to make a 400-page commitment if I’m going to hate it.”

A year after its release and I’ve finally read Hothouse, the history of the publisher Farrar, Straus & Giroux by Boris Kachka. I remember seeing the book at Books on Beechwood in Ottawa last summer, as part of a display on these types of literary histories. I would have picked it up right away but was distracted by David Mason’s The Pope’s Bookbinder on the same table. I knew I was only going to be leaving with one massive, forty-dollar hardcover that day and having worked with the colourful rare book dealer Dave Mason only that past year I was far more eager to read his memoir; it was to be like reading the diary of a co-worker you’ve heard scandalous rumours about.

But I digress.

Farrar, Straus & Giroux is one of the most important publishing houses of the twentieth century. If you love literary fiction, then many of your favourite authors were at some point published by FSG.If you’ve spent any time with rare (or just plain old) books then you’ll find the FSG logo immediately recognizable and you’ll smile to remember the evolution of their company name. Over the years I’ve seen imprints listing “Farrar, Straus,” Farrar, Straus and Young,” “Farrar, Straus and Cudahay,” and finally “Farrar, Straus and Giroux.” This evolution of partnerships isn’t unusual in any business; our ten years spent with Don Draper, Roger Sterling and Bert Cooper have taught us that partners come and go and letterhead necessarily changes. But no where do these internal shifts manifest themselves as publicly as with a publisher. Old letterhead at an advertising agency is discarded when a partner is added (or removed) but the imprint of a disbanded partnership exists in thousands or even millions of personal and public libraries all over the world. The books remember. Being naturally inquisitive (i.e. nosy) I’ve often wondered when noting the imprint page of an old book: “what happened?” Why did this partner leave? Was it their choice? What type of internal intrigue contributed to this changing label?

What I’m saying is that I’m the type of person who, if left alone in your house, would find and read your diary. So I was excited to finally get to Hothouse on my reading list.

And then I read the introduction. Yawn. There’s some good stuff in there but the whole thing felt overlong and packed with unnecessary detail. It’s especially strange because the book is written by Boris Kachka, a brilliant magazine writer who (one would think) should excel in the area of brevity. On the Hemingway-meter of true prose, Hothouse is about a three. It seemed to me that Kachka was given access to a treasure trove of archival material about his subject and didn’t want to leave anything out.

Does it sound like I didn’t like the book? That’s not true either. 100 pages in I was ready to give up but by then had already committed 100 pages AND I noticed that the last 50 pages were notes and index so I decided to keep going. And then something amazing happened. I noticed at page 304 that I was completely enraptured. The sleep-aid had transformed into a page turner. Kachka wasn’t doing anything differently but my relationship to the story had changed. On page 304 we are in the late 1990s/early 2000s. In the late 1990s/early 2000s I was in high school. So on page 304, Hothouse is addressing a period in which I am a reader. I’m now a participant in the story because the writers in this section of the book; Franzen, Eugenides and company, have a shared cultural history with me. That’s not to say it isn’t interesting to read about the antics of Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe in the preceding chapters, but Wolfe and Sontag are operating in a cultural context that I will never fully comprehend. To me, that part of the book is less diary and more history. This revelation also explains to me why I found it hard to relate to many of the reviews I read of the book. Robert Gottlieb, who wrote the New Yorker review claims it is the early portions that are freshest and most instructive. But Gottlieb was born in 1931 so the literary gossip he finds satisfying will of course be different from the stuff I crave.

If you like to know how the sausage is made, give Hothouse a read. You’ll be annoyed and impatient at times, but also fascinated and amused by the inside look at how some of your favourite literary works came to be.

Yesterday, a reply from my bookish friend finally came: “I did not read Hothouse. I looked it up and I think I would fall asleep.”

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