Jonathan Galassi’s FSG Story — and Mine

Jonathan Galassi. Photo: Clint Spaulding/Patrick McMullan

In 2013, my first book was reviewed in the magazine I write for by the head of the company the book was about. The last few chapters of Hothouse, my cultural history of the 70-year-old publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, covered Jonathan Galassi’s management of the proudly autonomous firm’s tricky absorption into an international conglomerate. Toward the end of Galassi’s review, he remembered staring into the mirror and asking himself: “Are you really the introverted, aloof, corporate tool Boris makes you out to be?” I thought he was looking at a straw man (okay, “aloof” did come up), but I also felt a great deal of empathy. In that long month of Hothouse reviews, I spent plenty of time in front of the mirror asking, “Are you really …” and learning what it felt like to be truly exposed.

Two months later, Galassi sold his first novel to Knopf, FSG’s perennial rival for highbrow talent, and two years after that, I found myself staring into yet another mirror. Much of Muse, published last week, is a roman à clef to which Hothouse is a sticky but perfectly functional key. Having quibbled over the narrative I’d made out of his professional life, Galassi has now made fiction out of it. And it is fiction, no matter how autobiographical, with its own arguments and omissions. His story is just as enamored of publishing’s Good Old Days and even more down on its future; what it mostly omits is the recent past, when men of letters largely made way for people of numbers — a transition in which he played some part.

Both of our books dwell on a Mad Men–concurrent postwar era dominated by idiosyncratic writers and publisher-owners (though Galassi shifts the action ten years forward, giving his giants more time to walk the earth). One third of Muse is a fond potted history of FSG with the names and details amusingly jumbled. Susan Sontag is the African-American Pepita Erskine; copy chief Carmen Gomezplata becomes copy chief Esperanza Esparza; and the Union Square Café is the Soft-Shell Crab, its tuna burgers enhanced with wasabi instead of teriyaki. Another third of the book is the story of a very Galassi-like editor, Paul Dukach, caught between two rival mentors, Purcell & Stern founder Homer Stern (obviously FSG’s Roger Straus) and Impetus Editions publisher Sterling Wainwright (New Directions’ James Laughlin). Then there’s the fictional part of Muse: Dukach works to poach from Impetus, on P&S’s behalf, Ida Perkins — a poet who possesses Sontag’s glamour, Edna St. Vincent Millay’s sexual abandon, and roughly the crossover appeal of the Beatles.

Reading the FSG bits was, for me, pleasantly vertiginous — almost postmodern. Between Homer Stern’s opening recitation of Roger Straus’s famous toast, “Fuck the peasants,” and a bravura chapter on the Frankfurt Book Fair, I gradually gave up the attempt to distinguish between the facts Galassi and I knew independently, research he had gleaned from my book, and gossip he’d told me but was rightfully reclaiming.

I’m a little too close to the material to know whether Galassi employed it wisely in the service of art and entertainment. If you didn’t know the copy editor he cleverly name-checked, would you just move on, or find it distracting? I shuffled past much of it with a whiff of déjà vu. What definitely works is Galassi’s trick of including both real writers and fictional counterparts. Having Elspeth Adams side by side with Elizabeth Bishop is a little like putting Clark Kent and Superman on the same street corner.

This doubling is more than just a clever bit of misdirection. It’s a literal doubling-down on the world as Galassi would like it to exist. In this universe, there are twice as many author-superstars — and twice as much literary prestige. FSG competes with P&S for Nobel Prizes and translation deals at Frankfurt; prestigious New Directions discovers unknown geniuses … and so does the fictional Impetus Editions. There are twice as many publishers and poets and critics clamoring for attention, and twice as much attention paid to them.

This is an undeniably pleasant fantasy for a literary mind to entertain, in parts obviously comic, but it’s also a striking feat of self-presentation on the part of a littérateur who reconciled himself to commerce long ago. In the real world, Galassi is as business-minded as a poet could ever be. The author Scott Turow told me Galassi was “ductile,” which is exactly what one of Dukach’s “shrewder authors” calls him: bendable to preexisting world orders, whether established by well-born alpha males or the conglomerates that succeeded them. But for most of Muse, literature is the world order. Ida Perkins has her laconic verse set to music by Carly Simon and Carole King; appears simultaneously on the covers of Rolling Stone, Interview, and a French avant-garde journal; and sells as many copies as The Corrections. “Poets on the bestseller list!” Dukach enthuses. “That was the magic of Ida, and P&S.” The magic of a market that is ductile to your passions, and a publishing house made solvent not by Thomas Friedman but by the poet you idolized as a teenager. Sounds nice!

Like many romans à clef, especially the office farces dominant today, Muse is a vindication fantasy. Dukach gets the girl — the best-selling poet, that is (and the guy; he exits the closet much sooner than Galassi did). He’s also granted the archetypal moment of emancipation — the severing of the mentor’s apron strings and the decision to strike out on his own. Driving him to it, ultimately, is a very realistic force: the internet. After literally sleeping with the enemy, a higher-up at the Amazon-like online retailer Medusa, Dukach mulls an offer from its CEO, George Boutis, before deciding, finally, “to take a break and try his luck as, you guessed it: a writer.”

In real life, Galassi’s reckoning came much earlier, and he chose a different path. FSG was sold to the Holtzbrinck Group in 1995, and so Galassi, who came aboard in 1986, has spent twice as long working for German billionaires as he did answering only to Roger Straus. This ineluctable corporate reality (which does not make Galassi a corporate tool) is left out of Muse. Even after Homer Stern’s death, his family carries on with the firm — though it will be sold off to Medusa (along with "Harper Schuster Norton") in an incongruously dystopian twist. By that point, though, Dukach is off in a beach house, scribbling away.

Galassi is entitled to make up anything he wants to in a novel — especially a self-aware satire — without being psychoanalyzed for it. But in his Hothouse review, he defended the “financial stability and supply-chain-style efficiency” afforded by corporate ownership. And he found in my book a nostalgic fallacy: “The Good Old Days are always more inspiring, more golden, less weighed down by drudgery, because the drudgery is precisely what we let ourselves forget.” You won’t find any of that drudgery in Muse, certainly for the better. Galassi is working on a second novel, he’s said, about something completely different. I look forward to seeing where his imagination takes him — even if, as a reporter, I can’t help longing for a little more about what it’s really like to be a publisher in the banal here-and-now.