"The erotics of books are alive and well": Jonathan Galassi on his new novel -- plus, Jennifer Weiner and why Jonathan Franzen is a feminist

"Franzen's a better writer" than Weiner. "That's the long and short of it," says FSG head. Also, his new novel!

Published July 1, 2015 12:00PM (EDT)

Jonathan Galassi    (Knopf/Nancy Crampton)
Jonathan Galassi (Knopf/Nancy Crampton)

You don’t have to work in publishing to enjoy Jonathan Galassi’s debut novel, Muse, a story that draws a lot from the writer’s own experience. Galassi is the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux and the author of three poetry collections. In his time at FSG, he has ushered some of the most esteemed writers into the literary landscape, including Jonathan Franzen.

There are plenty of recognizable characters in Muse, including Paul Dukach, an editor who appears to share a resemblance with Galassi. But Galassi also has a clear love of words and the types of people, both publishers and authors, who are behind them. He’s concerned with the “romance of reading,” as he writes in the book, and those who “were loyal to their own sometimes twisted yet settled natures, modern in the old-fashioned sense.”

Salon sat down with him in his sunny, spacious Manhattan office to discuss publishing, past and present.

As a former bookseller, I was pleased to see an indie bookseller played a prominent role in the book. Did you work in bookselling?

No, I never have, but I’ve always loved bookstores, and I think booksellers are kind of the unsung heroes of publishing in a way. And when I was first in publishing, as a young editor, I would go around with a friend of mine, who was one of the salespeople, and we would go calling on bookstores, in Connecticut, in Chicago and other places. And, you know, it was such an insight into the actual place that exchange happens. So in the book I decided to make this woman, Morgan Dickerman, be a kind of conscience for the main character.

I want to talk about the history of FSG and how it parallels with the fictional work you’ve created, because many of the characters are clearly based on real people, like Susan Sontag and Roger Straus.

Well, I started out with these two men who are based on my heroes and then everything else is an ascending degree of fictionalization. The writers are supposed to be types more than real people….They’re supposed to represent the types of writers that we’ve worked with here.

Did you worry about how your colleagues would react when creating those characters? 

Well, most of the people we’re talking about are dead, so I didn’t really put too much thought into it… But they’re presented in a -- I think Michiko Kakutani said a “gently satirical” way. I don’t think there’s anything really terribly devastating in the portrayal of them. I hope not, anyway.

So how much of you is in this book, with Paul’s character?

I think Paul is not me, but he had the situation that I had. In a way, all these characters are in situations that I remember that are real. So then they are different people, but situationally it’s an accurate representation. And Paul was in between these two strong figures who are polar opposites, and there’s a lot of my inner life in Paul, I think.

Have you kept journals throughout your career?

I haven’t really kept journals, no. It’s all from just my impressions and strong memories, and, you know, the mythology of publishing. If you’ve worked in a company for a long time, there’s a mythology that you know by heart, you don’t need to look it up to evoke. It’s there in your blood, as it were.

Absolutely. Ida Perkins, the poet in "Muse," is wildly famous and appears on the covers of Rolling Stone and Interview and some other magazines, and I’m wondering if you think a poet could ever achieve that level of book sales and notoriety in this day and age?

Well… The book is kind of a counterfactual, you know. So, it posits a universe where this happens, so… it’s not quite real. It’s a poet’s revenge, that’s what it is. It’s not supposed to be real, it’s supposed to be slightly cartoonish in a certain way. And some people have thought, “Well, it’s hard to believe that.” Well you’re not supposed to believe it, you’re supposed to get into a suspension of disbelief that allows you to live in that alternative world a little bit. It’s just like the literary history in the book is kind of potted literary history -- this Ida Perkins is slotted into history as if she existed.

So, do you feel like people who are in the publishing world, especially those who’ve been in it a long time, are reading this book differently than someone in, you know, Ohio is, who hasn’t worked in publishing?

Maybe, maybe because they’ve been around and they know the place that a company like FSG has in the universe of publishing, or New Directions, or Random House, whereas to other people it’s probably a little more remote. But I hope that people who aren’t publishing will be interested [laugh] in the lives of these people. It’s really a throwback to another era, a sort of "Mad Men"-style vision of the more personal way of doing business, which is true of so many businesses.

In your first two sentences of your novel, you say, “This is a love story” and then you say, “It’s about the good old days when men were men and women were women.” I’m curious about the first part of that second sentence -- I’m wondering what you meant by “when men were men and women were women.”

You could say that Homer Stern is a man’s man in a certain way. He’s a kind of blustery, type A, testosterone-driven character. He’s larger than life in that way. I think I say later on that people’s characters -- that today we live in a flat world, and people pivot and they change, whereas people in this story are sort of who they are. Or at least, you’re supposed to start out thinking that, and then eventually maybe you see things in a different light. But it’s about an era where things were defined much more rigidly.

So, in some ways, you exaggerate, as you said, but it is, it was, very much like that.

Yeah, and Ida Perkins is super feminine, in a certain way. And it’s a sort of pastiche of femininity, and again, over time, I think that changes, but it starts out with people like Homer, who are seducers and men’s men, and people like Ida, who are the feminine ideal of a certain type.

Do you think publishing is still at all like that? 

No, I don’t think people -- I don’t think interesting people are like that anymore. I think we’re  more sophisticated now.

You’re a poet yourself, and I’m wondering if you can talk about the process of writing the poems that were in this novel and what that was like.

I had such a ball writing them, because they’re much easier to write than your own poems, because they’re not mine. First of all, they’re clues in the story, they’re clues to who Ida really is. And also, the trick was to try and write something that could -- of course, they’re not the greatest poems of the era -- but they have maybe something that lets you imagine how they might have been that in this alternate universe. But also they’re not in my own voice, they’re supposed to be in hers, and… it was just part of the challenge of the book. Some people said, “Oh it’s risky to write the poems of the poet,” but, that was the fun of it.

It makes me think of A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which is another example of fictionalized--

And Pale Fire, of course. I’ve always loved the poetry in Pale Fire, I think it’s wonderful.

So that was an influence?

It was certainly a benchmark of some sort.

What are the challenges of writing fiction vs. poetry? Did you notice a lot of differences?

Yeah, because poetry is not really fictional. It’s about trying to write something true. You sort of eliminate everything that isn’t true. The only thing you can really say in a poem is what you really, really deeply believe. Poetry is really about your mental state or intellectual, and where you are, and you’re trying to evoke that, explain it to yourself, whatever, you’re trying to dig into it, analyse yourself. I think that’s what happens in poetry. In fiction, first of all, I think you have a lot of different centers of attention, and you’re moving from one place to another. It’s about movement. Poetry’s more static than fiction is. The test for me in writing fiction was to try to open up, to say more, not less. And yet, as I learned, cutting was the most important tool in fiction.

Did you cut a lot out?

Yeah, a lot. I kept thinking, “Oh, is this book going to be long enough?” So that’s maybe one of my own problems. It was hard for me to let go of things, but when I did I was always glad. I missed them until they were off the page, and then I never missed them.

How long did it take you to write this book? 
I started in 2011 in the summertime, and I just wrote everyday without looking at it, and put it away for a year. And then in 2012 I decided I would go ahead with it. So from the summer 2012 to the summer of 2014 was when I really wrote the bulk of it. So two, two and half years.

Did you find it challenging to balance your writing time with your day job?

Yes, I mean, when I’m doing my day job I can’t write. I have to do it on weekends or summers … But I can’t come home at night and write. I can get up in the mornings sometimes -- but my job is demanding, I can’t do both. But, it’s not like it was a burden that I had, it was a joy that I wanted to go to. It was a big challenge, but it was fun.

Did you share the novel while you were writing it with any of your writers that you edit?

No, not really. I had a couple I talked to about it, but I didn’t want to impose it on them. And also, they want me to be their editor. I don’t think they’re so interested in my being their colleague in that way. And I’m just a beginner, too, so I didn’t want to make that part of our relationship.

How did your years of editing come into play as you wrote the novel? Did you find you were revising along the way?

Well, no, that was the challenge. That’s why I did what I did at the beginning -- I didn’t want to inhibit myself, I wanted to...give myself permission to write. The real fun of writing is shaping. Once you have the broad material, then you start to sculpt. So then your critical faculties come into play, but you have to get that lump of dough before you have something to work with.

In Muse, you write about an Amazon-like company. What are your thoughts on the future of publishing? Are you optimistic?

I think that I am optimistic because people need to write, and people need to read what other people write. It’s just fundamental to our culture...books are not as smack down in the center of culture as they used to be in the good old days, but they’re very, very important, and they always will be. I think that people who think that publishing is going to become self-publishing, and that this kind of activity is outdated are wrong, because writers need editors to understand them, and interpret their work -- because they shouldn’t be doing that. They need other people doing that. So that fundamental activity of editorial activity is still the same as it always was, and that’s not changing.

Many things will change in publishing, and are changing, about formatting, about delivery. Bookstores fill a different function than they used to. In the good old days, people went to bookstores to buy books. Now you have to have an extra reason to go to a bookstore. It’s a cultural adventure to go to a bookstore. It’s not something people decide to do because you can buy your books online. But the discovery element of publishing is something bookstores are absolutely essential for, and a lot of serious readers know that, to be in that atmosphere where they can be open to things.

Do you ever miss how publishing was when you first started out?

Sure, I mean, that’s why I wrote the book! It’s a love letter to my youth, in a way.

And to the book as an object, also.

The book as an object isn’t going away, either. If you go into a bookstore, like Three Lives or something -- I love a local bookstore -- the erotics of books, as they are, are alive and well...I think, in a way, the book as an object is more appreciated now.

Who were you channeling or influenced by while writing the book? You already mentioned Nabokov.

Well, I think the English satirical writers -- Kingsley Amis lay in the back of my head. But they’re not direct influences, I think, but the idea of a comedy is there. I’ve read quite a few poets’ novels, like Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution, which is a fantastic book.

The editor, Paul Dukach, one of the main characters and the one clearly based on you, is at first enamored and awe-struck by the writers he works with, but then you write at one point, “He’d come to appreciate that writers were just like everyone else, except when they were more so. It sometimes seemed that they’d been able to develop their gifts thanks to a lack of inhibition, an inner permission to feel and react, that made them seem self-absorbed and insensitive to the existence of anyone else.” I’m wondering if you believe that sentiment yourself, and if so did you have to develop your own lack of inhibition, or is that something that just comes naturally to you?

I think that Paul is a kind of self-inhibited person, and part of what happens in the book is he gives himself permission in lots of different ways. And that’s his process of growing up, really, is to claim himself. And part of that involves his not idealizing the writers so much, and in a way the last symbolic action of that is that he becomes one himself, you know, which is supposed to be a joke. It’s that Ida looms large, she’s like a goddess, but eventually you see that she’s not a goddess, she’s a woman. And it’s partly that he’s grown up and she’s not as big to him as she was. They’re more or less the same size at the end.

Right, and it’s his process of coming to that, of understanding that. Sexuality is an important theme in your novel, both with Ida and with Paul. Over the years you’ve spent in publishing, have you seen an improvement or change in attitude or openness in the publishing environment? Because on the one hand, things used to be more hush-hush whether a person was having an affair, or what their sexuality was, but on the other hand it seemed like people -- it was also an open secret. How has that changed?

Before my time at FSG, you know, there was that famous line, “Tennis is to Scribner’s as sex is to FSG.” So that was before I was here, but it was always a place where… I mean, it was years of the sexual revolution and stuff. It’s not like New York has been a repressed place. I think there’s always been a lot of sexual freedom. It’s been more elicit. I think, today, sex is less important as an issue. It’s not that it’s less important as an activity, but...people are much more tolerant or laissez faire about it. And you know, you sort of implied this in your question about when men were men -- gender issues today are much more -- the understanding of them -- are much more complex and fluid than when I was a young person. I think that that is reflected in the book, too. I mean, some of these characters turn out to have secrets that are very motivating and consequential, but Paul himself doesn’t really have secrets...He hasn’t really come into his sexuality in a way. But it’s not like he’s closeted… he’s just not fully inhabiting himself.

So you think that nowadays people...

I don’t think anybody cares about anybody’s sexuality. I mean, people notice, but it’s sort of an interesting fact about someone. It’s not something that needs to be talked… You know, a boastful sexual athlete like Homer Stern, today would be kind of a ridiculous figure. I’m sure there are a lot of people like that, but they don’t do it the same way...And it goes right back to what you said, I think that’s what you were getting at when you said, “when men were men and women were women.” It’s about performing sex roles. I think what comes about in the book is that you don’t perform them, you be them, and the erotic truth of the characters which is revealed in the story involves a secretive approach that just wouldn’t fly today.

I’d love to talk about the current state of things at FSG. You have a new novel coming out from Franzen this fall, and I’m wondering how he represents the contemporary landscape of this publishing company? How is he connected to the authors that came before him?

Well, I think Jonathan is one of the most representative writers of his generation. He grapples with the issues, in these books, that we all are grappling with, politically, personally, culturally. … And I think it’s very similar to Philip Roth, Flannery O’Connor, a whole series of writers that we’ve had that have been at the center of the consciousness of the moment. So I think he’s very much my standard bearer for what FSG stands for right now.

And when you talk about the consciousness of the moment, why do you think Franzen has so much trouble with the Internet or why is constant attention given to things that he’s saying?

There’s a lot about the internet in his new book, actually. I think he’s critical of certain aspects of the lack of responsibility in mass communications…It was interesting watching him at BEA, he gave a speech there that was very --

Laura Miller interviewed him.

Yeah, did you see that? I think that there’s been an evolution with Franzen, since the Oprah controversy where this really began. I think that there were many reasons why that thing blew up the way it did, and it had a lot of consequences in terms of the way people think about him. But a lot of that is within the industry, I think. I don’t think that’s true for readers… Because he doesn’t stand by the pieties that are of the moment. He has own vision, and he’s very true to it, and he’s totally authentic in that. And that’s why people want to read him, I think.

That’s what I was wondering. You know, there’s constant controversy surrounding him on the Internet, things that he says that people get upset about.

Well, the latest one is this thing about birds, and you know, I think that his point was misconstrued, in a lot of ways….He says inconvenient things. But, that’s why people listen to him I think. Because of the honesty, the authenticity of his viewpoint. He’s a real, he’s a maverick in a lot of ways. He also happens to be a great writer.

I’m wondering how you’re seeing the business -- especially at FSG -- how has it changed for female writers? Even with book covers -- often, not necessarily at FSG -- we see book covers that are often given to women writers that would not be given to men.

Oh, it’s so true. Franzen would be the first to say this. I think it’s definitely true that women writers -- women in general -- get the short end of the stick, culturally.

Yeah, that’s why I was so happy you had Ida in this book.

Well, because Ida is the spirit of literature. Many of our greatest writers have been women. Elizabeth Bishop was my favorite teacher. But I do notice -- like, for instance, another one of the writers, I’ve published all of her books, I think she’s a great, great writer, Alice McDermott -- she has not had the recognition she deserves. She’s had recognition, she’s won the National Book Award, but she is really up there. And you know, I remember when I was a student, a poetry student, and Robert Lowell was one of my teachers, Elizabeth Bishop was too. But even Robert Lowell, he would say, “She’s the greatest woman poet,” and it was like the men are here, and the women are here. And you know, the way that things should have shaken down in that generation, she’s the one who’s sort of on top. So, I think that, there’s a process of shaking down and reevaluation that happens in culture. We don’t control it, it just happens. And great writers who are women emerge as dominant figures -- people like Plath, Bishop, Marianne Moore...I think that [Moore] is underrated as one of the founders of modernism. And I could go on and on. But eventually, they emerge as who they really are.

Separate from their gender?

Well, their gender is indivisible from who they are, but I’d say their part in the texture of culture becomes apparent. But often -- I mean, Elizabeth Bishop felt that she had been given the short end of the stick, she definitely did. And her rise to eminence in her generation was posthumous, it happened after she died. She rode the waves of women’s -- of feminism -- and gay liberation, something that she wasn’t very comfortable with when she was alive….Or Louise Gluck, Louise is another really great writer, who… won a preeminent place.

Recently, the writer Nicola Griffith (author of Hild) pointed out that most award-winning novels are not about women, they’re about men. So, I’m curious about your thoughts on that, especially where we still have the VIDA counts still showing that the bylines in The New York Review of Books predominantly are men, the books reviewed are more often by men. We saw with Eugenides on the billboard that there was a brouhaha about that-- he was on a billboard, but would you see Donna Tartt on a billboard?

I mean, we did the billboard because it was billboard available at a very cheap price, and it was a great idea. I’m sure if Little, Brown, if they’d had a chance and it was the right time, they’d have put Donna Tartt on there. I mean, you can’t say that Donna Tartt was underplayed, she sold millions of copies of her book.

Right, but she writes predominantly male characters, so she’s an example of a female writer that’s very much focused on the male narrative.

I mean, a lot of women… There’s a whole Franzen... thing with Jennifer Weiner, which is really silly. She’s very well named, in a way. She whines about something that… I think she puts the accent wrong. She says Franzen gets more attention, than her, I guess, but Franzen’s a better writer. That’s the long and short of it. But, I think that Jonathan would say that -- you know, he recently championed Nell Zink, he discovered her and he has pushed her, and I think he very much feels that women are underrepresented. So for him to be labeled this way, really, it’s ridiculous -- he’s a feminist, and certain people make him the poster boy for male dominance. I think there’s just something wrong with that picture.

As an editor, do you make a concerted effort to look for more female voices, or are you just more about the writing itself?

We’re about the writing. I mean, I’m working on a book for next year by this young woman named C. E. Morgan, which is going to be our big book next spring. It’s about horse racing and race and Kentucky… It’s an amazing book. She had one short novel we did called All the Living… But it’s really, it’s about the writing, and writing comes from everywhere.

By Michele Filgate

Michele Filgate's work has appeared in The Daily Beast, Vulture, Capital New York, Time Out New York, The Star Tribune, O: The Oprah Magazine, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation and other publications

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Amazon Books Jennifer Weiner Jonathan Franzen Jonathan Galassi Muse