Giroux rose to chairman, but he never made the big decisions—something Straus reportedly reminded him of, telling him, “You still don’t know the difference between an editor and a publisher.” Giroux later responded, “There’s nothing great about the word publisher, per se.”
What Straus and Giroux did share were very similar tastes and a genuine love of authors, and they both tended, as old age and corporate consolidation advanced, toward cranky proclamations. Each in his own way, of course: Straus compared conglomerate publishers to spaghetti salesmen, publicly feuded with Simon & Schuster, and turned down offers to buy the house (before relenting in 1994). Giroux, conceding “I’m just an old fogey,” asked, “Who the hell would read a book by Nixon?” (What did he make of O.J., you wonder.) He railed against “ooks”—gimmicks that weren’t quite books—which account for the majority of what’s now published. He often said, “It is the publisher’s job, if he cannot find a masterpiece to print, at least to avoid publishing junk.”
Junk is not a modern development, any more than layoffs or bankruptcies. Galassi made this clear at the memorial, calling out the titles on the 1952 Farrar list—before Giroux came onboard. These included an autobiography by bandleader Artie Shaw and books on traveling and hunting in Florida. “The most sobering of all publishing lessons,” Giroux once said, is that “a great book is often ahead of its time, and the trick is how to keep it afloat until the times catch up with it.” The times will never catch up with those schlocky books from ’52, but one or two of them may have helped the company hold on long enough for Giroux to get there. In the early years, it was Straus’s canniness and connections that kept the company going. Giroux was the one who made it worth salvaging. Galassi will have to keep doing both.