- - Tuesday, August 27, 2013

By Boris Kachka
Simon & Schuster, $28, 433 pages

Otto von Bismarck famously observed that the less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they’ll feel about them. The same could be said for the world of books. The more we learn about the petty malice of Evelyn Waugh, the envious insecurity of Hemingway, the relentless money-grubbing of Balzac, the arid, neurotic love life of Edith Wharton or the utter creepiness of Marcel Proust, the more we are distracted from their purely artistic merits. It is no coincidence that two of the world’s most universally applauded writers, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes, are men whose private lives remain to this day, and with no pun intended, closed books.

The same holds true for publishers, operating as they do in a milieu mingling art at its highest with commerce at its lowest. When the publishing industry of a country is concentrated in a single city, things only get worse. Throughout most of America’s history, important book publishers thrived in major cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, as well as New York. The competition was healthy, and diversity was rich. Not any more.

Almost all of the action is now in Manhattan, with the result that most of the movers and shakers, publishers, agents, editors and authors, breathe the same incestuous air, talk the same trendy talk, think the same group-think and share the same gossip — and sometimes even the same beds as well. In literature as in life, inbreeding takes a toll. For several generations now, a strain of Manhattan chauvinism, a kind of inverted provincialism, has contributed to the narrowing and marginalizing of serious American poetry and fiction.

Reading Brooklyn-raised Boris Kachka’s thoroughly researched but gushy, gossip-driven history of Farrar Straus and Giroux (FSG) underscores this. A remarkable independent publishing house, FSG produced an impressive list of authors and titles from the postwar era through its absorption by a German-based publishing conglomerate at the turn of the last century. It had its share of crass commercial titles — health fad books and ghosted celebrity memoirs — but FSG could take legitimate pride in the largest list of Nobel laureate authors in the industry and big-name writers as varied as T.S. Eliot, Philip Roth, Joan Didion, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Sontag and Tom Wolfe. While most of the literary laurels were a result of a team of dedicated editors headed by Robert Giroux, a cultivated, sensitive and, as it happened, homosexual literary man from a Catholic, working-class background, FSG’s very public face was that of its financial founding father and longtime head, Roger Straus Jr.

A true monstre sacre, Straus was in many ways a loathsome individual, a bully, a pathological liar, a sexual predator and a monumental vulgarian. The black-sheep offspring of one of New York’s old commercial dynasties, he was not so much the “aristocrat” Boris Kachka makes him out to be as a plain, old-fashioned plutocrat, a man of inherited wealth who despised ordinary fellow humans, affected gangster chalk-stripes and ascots, loved flashy cars and flashy dames, and liberally larded his conversation with the “F-word.” Just to give an idea, one of his favorite toasts was “F— the peasants,” his intelligent, homely but well-dowered wife, Dorothea, referred to her hubby’s publishing house as a “sexual sewer,” and Mr. Kachka’s index includes nine Straus citations under the head “vulgarity of” — and that’s only scratching the surface.

Yet, despicable as he was in many ways, there was also something impressive about the man — a quality he shared with many of the crude but instinctively canny early Hollywood moguls who couldn’t write, act or direct but whose ability to recognize and channel others’ talents resulted in film masterpieces. No one really knows if Roger Straus even read many of the books he published but, in the words of a former editor, he “was an autodidact, the reader’s equivalent of someone who listens to music and is perfect pitch. He just knew the difference between the real stuff and the fake stuff … .” As his archrival, literary superagent Andrew Wylie summed up after Straus was safely dead and gone: “He had flair. He was tempestuous in a kind of theatrical way. But the drama that followed him around was good for publishing.” He was a big man in an industry now dominated by midgets.

Aram Bakshian Jr., a former aide to Presidents Nixon, Ford and Reagan, has written widely on politics, history, gastronomy and the arts.