In his first column for Spear’s, Sam Leith remembers when a book used to be just paper, ink and glue. Now they’re all-singing, all-dancing, electronically entertaining social and culinary extravaganzas
NOT LONG AGO I found myself wandering round the wrong end of the Harrow Road on a blustery Thursday night, trying to find my way into the Dissenter’s Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery. The plan was to spend my evening breaking bread with a crowd of strangers in a candle-filled room, while a young man read to us from a shawody pulpit.
Rather than being, as it might sound, some sort of gathering for Crowleian occultists, the occasion was actually a slightly unusual literary event: the first of a series of location-specific Literary Dinners. Alex Preston read a section of his novel, The Revelations, set among Kensal Green’s gravestones, while thirty-odd paying guests ate a menu specially tailored to the book’s themes. The idea is something between a one-off author appearance, an ad hoc book group, and a pop-up restaurant.
Its originator Charles Haynes says he wanted to find a more one-off and intimate way of doing literary events than the standard read-chat-and-sign format of the traditional festival or book tour. He’s not the only one: unconventional author events are in danger of becoming, well, almost conventional. Patrick Neate’s Book Slam, which describes itself as a literary club night, is a long established mix of music, spoken word and hard drink that regularly draws crowds of 300-500. In East London, the Shoreditch House literary salon shrewdly curated by writer Damian Barr builds events around trios of writers, fiction or non-fiction, pizza and Hendrick’s gin.
Then there’s the Literary Death Matches – raucous cabaret nights that pit four writers against one another in two rounds. Hosted by the energetic and charming Todd Zuniga, these are the hardest to describe and, probably, the least literary. The qualifying round involves giving a reading that will be evaluated by a panel of judges for Literary Merit, Performance and Intangibles. The final is more likely to involve two writers, blindfolded, attempting to squirt silly string through the open mouth of a giant papier mache model of Che Guevara. Sounds silly. Is silly. But they have held events in 37 cities from San Francisco to Helsinki. Not long ago I saw a not-quite-knowing-what-she’d-let-herself-in-for Esther Freud go out in the first round to a young performance poet.
These events attract big names, and put them on unusual bills. Barr – despite the fact his salon doesn’t give a fee and won’t put books on sale – has hosted John Waters and Bret Easton Ellis. Literary Dinners, at the time of writing, were in discussions with a Nobel laureate about doing one of their intimate dinners rather than a trad festival appearance when he’s in the UK.
This all strikes me as symptomatic of something interesting. Roland Barthes’s remarks about the Death of the Author stand in need of revision. Whether it be at big tent literary festivals, or at these new, boutique events there’s a discernible appetite for a connection to the flesh-and-blood writer; and, if possible, for a one-off face-to-face. Reading A Book is increasingly just part of a whole continuum of literary experience. Book group visits, dinner with an author: we want flesh.
Is this, perhaps, part of a wider and weirder movement? Digital technologies mean that none of us now needs to experience anything communally, or even simultaneously. That radio show is now a podcast. Everything’s on Sky Plus. When you can watch a film in HD on your phone, nobody needs to share a screen or a speaker. Works of art have dematerialised and the idea of “missing” something is on its way to becoming redundant.
THE EFFECT OF all this is, paradoxically, to kindle a thirst for the opposite. (As nobody reading this magazine will need to be reminded, scarcity makes a market.) So we see huge TV talent shows with live outcomes. We see people making television programmes communal by live-Tweeting them. We see an unprecedented boom in the number of people going to see live music.
The same thing, I’d suggest, is happening as books – somewhat late to the party – dematerialise into bits and bytes in the cloud. Publishing pundits have predicted that the cheap paperback may indeed be killed off by Kindle and the iPad: that our reading copies will be electronic. But the same effect, they suggest, could lead to a resurgence in high value, high-status, luxurious limited-edition hardbacks – books as art-objects.
Already, with the launch of Unbound, we’ve seen a glimmer of this. Unbound is a project that crowd-sources the funding of new books online. It publishes to a market – subscribers, effectively – whose size it already knows, with all the efficiencies that implies. Its new-tech business plan has produced something rather old-fashioned: beautifully made cloth-bound books of short fiction by Tibor Fischer and Terry Jones.
Again, and here’s where it returns to my original theme, the typical offering to subscribers makes the book only part of the deal. If you go to their website you have a choice of how much you donate (if the book doesn’t get written you get your money back, of course): a tenner or so gets you a book (and the names of every subscriber appears in the book’s acknowledgements); a bit more gets you a signed copy, or an invitation to the launch party. The highest packages get you the chance to have a private dinner with the author.
So: the rise of the salon; social relationships between artists and patrons; books being not private objects so much as the entry point to a public conversation… The future looks more and more like the eighteenth century with every day that passes, doesn’t it?