Farrar, Straus and Giroux’s comfortably appointed offices on West 18th Street in New York City, into which Jonathan Galassi welcomes me, are much sprucer than the famously seedy quarters where he went to work as executive editor at the house in 1985.
Galassi, who is now FSG’s publisher, recalls the company’s former digs with satiric zest in his first novel, Muse, which will be published by Knopf in June:“The place looked more like... the offices of a porn magazine (there seemed to be one upstairs, down the hall from the rehab center on the eighth floor) than a temple of contemporary literature. A broken couch and frosted glass dividers fought for attention with certificates for the National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and National Book Critics Circle Awards won by house authors appended helter-skelter over the receptionist’s rickety desk.”
Anyone who has taken the clanking elevator at 19 Union Square West will recognize that description, although the firm in Muse goes by the name Purcell and Stern. And there’s no question about the basis for the novel’s battling publishers either: flamboyant, womanizing Homer Stern is clearly Galassi’s old boss, FSG’s legendary founder Roger Straus, while his aristocratic nemesis, Sterling Wainwright of Impetus Editions, is just as clearly James Laughlin, the no-less-legendary founder of New Directions.
Galassi says that he “can’t deny that it starts from those men.” He adds: “I loved them both, and they loomed very large in my life. And they really did hate each other!” In Muse, their enmity drives a comedy of publishing manners anchored by young editor Paul Dukach, Homer’s employee, who finds himself in possession of a final manuscript by poet Ida Perkins, one of Sterling’s most cherished authors. “There are elements of me in Paul,” Galassi concedes, “but Ida is a total invention. My friend Judith Thurman said, ‘Well, Ida is literature,’ and I think Judith was right about that, because they’re all in love with her, and she’s elusive.”
Although Galassi has written three volumes of poetry and translated several Italian poets, most notably Nobel laureate Eugenio Montale, he didn’t consider trying his hand at prose until recently. “I never thought I could write fiction. But then my last poetry book (Left Handed, Knopf, 2012) had a certain narrative progression to it, and after I finished, I thought, Well, maybe I should try a novel. That was the summer of 2011. I was in Rhode Island, and I decided to write every day but never look at it. Then I put it away for a year.”
The next summer, Galassi picked up the manuscript and decided it was worth working on; Knopf’s Robin Desser later agreed, and a happy editorial relationship began. “I’ve greatly enjoyed working with Robin,” Galassi says. “She is a really meticulous, demanding editor and has become a close friend. She does the job quite differently from me, and I am full of admiration for her incredible attention to the smallest detail. But when I’m in her dentist’s chair she often accuses me, lovingly but sardonically, of being ‘a real author’—and when an editor says that, it’s not necessarily a compliment.”
Loving but sardonic is an apt description of Muse. Galassi evokes the glamour of book publishing in its swashbuckling pre-conglomerate days, when “authors were gods” and editors their adoring servants, but he also casts a shrewd eye on publishing as a business. There’s a marvelous account of the Frankfurt Book Fair: “exhausting and repetitive and depressing—and no one in publishing with any sense or style would have missed it.” Late in the novel, Paul has an affair with “the man from Medusa” (Medusa is a not-at-all disguised stand-in for Amazon), a charming young guy for whom books are fodder and writing is “content.” Although Paul turns down an offer to go to work at Medusa, in the last chapter the e-tailer acquires Purcell and Stern, as well as every other large publisher—a development one hopes is just as improbable as the revelation that P&S sells more than 750,000 copies of Ida’s posthumous poetry volume.
Galassi says that the resolution of the book is sort of a joke. “All the publishers are sold to Medusa, and Paul becomes a writer. It’s ironic, anyway. I think Amazon has done a lot of things really well, but so far it hasn’t made much of a dent in actual publishing. I think publishers need to be the ones that publish the books and control that process: finding writers, helping them with their work, finding readers. I think writers need that.”
One of the most crucial tasks publishers perform, Galassi notes, is encouraging and supporting writers who are doing important work before the public is ready for it. “A lot of great authors are published before their time,” he says. “That’s not wrong, it’s just the way it works. For instance, New Directions published a lot of smaller books by Roberto Bolaño before he died [in 2003], but they didn’t have a certain specific gravity, a certain kind of buildup. Then when we were able to publish The Savage Detectives [in 2007], something had already happened that allowed it to become a much more mainstream event. That’s a good example where timing is key.”
Happily for New Directions, which Galassi describes as being “very good at taking the long view,” its Bolaño backlist is in print and has sold better since the Chilean author broke out with The Savage Detectives. “Keeping books in print is very different today with short-run printing and e-editions,” Galassi says. “It’s not like leaving 500 copies in the warehouse the way Roger used to. Soon all books will be digitally available all the time, and that’s a great development.”
Still, Galassi is a bit nostalgic for the old days. “Remember rummaging through used bookstores, the serendipity effect when you found something special? It was wonderful.” Galassi is still in thrall to the allure of ink on paper bound between covers, something he acknowledges while gesturing to the floor-to-ceiling wall and a half of books in his office. “I love books, and the young people here love printed books too; they’re not so into e-books. There’s no question that for commercial fiction right out of the gate, e-books can be more than 50% of the sales—but it’s not 80%, and I think e-books are levelling off. There’s been a fragmentation of how the market functions, but I believe printed books are here to stay. People like the tactile experience, the smell of them, there’s a great romance to them. Now, it may be that 75 or 100 years from now they will have gone the way of the Model T, but I don’t think so: the book is a pretty usable engine, an efficient little machine.”
Galassi is working on a new book himself: another novel, but more serious this time. And though he’s now 65, he won’t be giving up his day job anytime soon. “I love what I do,” he says. “At the heart of publishing are still the editor and the author, the editor falling in love with the author’s work and doing the best he or she can to dress it up as beautifully as possible and get it to its readers. That’s still what publishing is, and I have no intention of stopping.”
Wendy Smith, a contributing editor at the American Scholar, reviews books for the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and the Daily Beast.