Tuesday, May 03, 2011

London Literary Salons

Today I'm pleased to welcome author Helen Smith to Terry's Place. Helen is a novelist and playwright who lives in London. She loves going to literary salons.

There have always been literary events of some kind or another in London, where I live. On any given night I know I can be sure of getting a live literature fix, whether it’s from a poetry reading, a slam poetry event, a spoken word performance, a book signing, an author Q&A – there’s a huge variety of events in formats to suit all tastes, from conventional to quirky, from high-brow to low-brow, from brilliant to hit-and-miss.

Just lately London has seen the resurgence of the literary salon. Say the words and I see silk turbans and peacock feathers, I see bustles, fans and piano fortes: I remember reading as a child about the literary salons of the nineteenth century in England: they were a way for society hostesses to show off fashionable novelists, essayists and poets to admiring guests. Careers could be made at these events, patrons snapped up, and literary heroes assessed and admired, or dismissed. The only problem with any of this was that you had to be well-connected in order to secure an invitation. If the modern day counterparts were to be run along the same lines, I couldn’t hope to attend to mingle with today’s literary giants.

Fortunately the new literary salons are egalitarian events, hosted by writers rather than social-climbing heiresses. The hosts take their duties seriously: the primary aim is to entertain the audience by showcasing talent as selected writers talk about and read from their books, and great care are is taken to create an intimate, friendly atmosphere. Though the writers will need to be able to perform in order to engage the audience, it isn’t quite a ‘show, and though it’s a lot of fun, it isn’t quite a party. Perhaps most importantly, the successful event feels less like a promotion than a conversation.

One popular London event is Damian Barr’s Literary Salon which is held roughly once a month. It takes place at a private members’ club. There’s a guest list and the writers invited to read are A-list and interesting. It’s informal and intimate enough that the Chatham House Rule applies, meaning that journalists cannot quote what is said at the event without the express permission of whoever has said it. If any of that sounds intimidating or elitist, it isn’t. It’s free to attend; the guest list is first come, first served. There’s a free gin and tonic for every guest on arrival, and free pizza at half time – which is when you have the opportunity to experience at first hand the sharpness of the hunger and the sharpness of the elbows of the publishing people in attendance.

Another is Polari, held at the Royal Festival Hall in London. It is hosted by the writer Paul Burston who puts together both new and established writers from around the world, guaranteeing an eclectic mix of readings that range from the profound to the preposterously entertaining. Even the location is wonderful, with a view through the big picture windows of the sun setting on Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament as the evening begins.

I enjoy these events as a way of discovering writers that are new to me. I won’t know everyone on the line-up, and I might not like every piece that is read, but I’ll usually come away with a note to look out more of at least one writer’s work.

The fame of both Damian Barr’s Literary Salon and Polari has crossed the Atlantic and reached as far as the New York Times. I’m curious to know whether you enjoy literary events or whether you prefer to stay at home and read books, undisturbed by the authors who have written them.

Helen Smith is the author of Alison Wonderland, Being Light, The Miracle Inspector, children’s books and plays, and the new Emily Castles Mystery Series. She will be appearing at a literary salon at the Royal Festival Hall in London in September. She has a blog at http://helensmithblog.blogspot.com


MuMuGB said...

Thanks for the information! Very useful.

William L.K. said...

Great post! Even though I'm across the pond, this is good information to know. Thanks for sharing!

Donna Fasano said...

I long for a literary salon (especially one that offers free gin and tonic...and pizza)! The only salons near me are places to have your hair and nails done (shops with names like Curl Up and Dye or Klassy Kuts or Blood, Sweat & Shears). London is so exuberantly au courant compared to my neck of the woods. I am envious!

Helen Smith said...

Thanks, MuMuGB, William and Donna.

Donna, I love the name Blood, Sweat & Shears - it would make a great title for a creative writing workshop.