‘Is there any point having a book launch?’ muses a maudlin writer at a recent literary pub outing. ‘Not the sort I’d like I suppose. A literary wake. A small bar in the middle of nowhere. Plenty of whisky. A coffin.’ I can do that all by myself. .. Oh, how very noir.
Still, as a writer with a book about to launch it got me thinking too. Do people care? Some, maybe. Is it just vanity? Probably. Do you sell books? It depends. Publishers don’t throw around money for these kind of things now. Time was there’d be wads of cash behind the bar of some lavish private members club. A literary launch party would be all champagne and cocktails and cigars and mixed up hotel rooms. These days you can usually expect a glass of tepid wine, two at a push, and a reading in a breezy arts centre. Perhaps you’ll sell a book to your Mum, and that ex lover who is still your BIGGEST FAN in rather a scary YOU DID NOT INVITE THEM way. [DISCLAIMER: Parthian assure me that the Bright Young Things launches will be nothing short of fantastic].
But then again, parties and literature have always made good bed fellows. Nocturnal gatherings feature in books everywhere from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones, from Jane Austen to Bret Easton Ellis and the Literary Brat Pack. In his early 20s Ellis organised fabulous parties and issued invitations saying things like, ‘Because it's Thursday.’ These days, he’s calmed it down. Still bad behaviour at parties in literature is not new. Nor the arrival of unexpected guests – in fact, isn’t that half the thrill? Romeo is a gatecrasher at the Capulets shindig. The PM turns up at the party that concludes Mrs. Dalloway. In F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Nick Carraway observes his rich neighbour's summer parties, ‘In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.’ Whilst The Famous Five were forever having gatherings with lashings and lashings of ginger beer (Crabbies, for sure, the naughty ASBOs).
In the real literati world, though, you’d be wise to spot the fake and the frenemies but beyond the regional book launch, the live literati party scene is thriving from the mansions of London and Hay to the Marquees of Port Eliot and Latitude, writers are showing everyone how to have a good Book Club Boutique time, and if they aren’t they’d better hurry up and start. It is part of our job description now, don’t you know. This doesn’t bother me much, and I still argue the live literature scene has been thriving for aeons, the press has simply decided to catch up. The audience may be broadening though. It certainly isn’t the case that you have to live on the right London street to be in on the act these days.
Writers are strange creatures. Some are Dylan Thomas delirious to be out at the pub with you, whoever you are, so long as you are picking up the tab. Others want to crawl back under their rock.
Philip Larkin explains in his poem ‘Vers de Société’ which describes receiving an invitation to a soiree from a Warlock-Williams: ‘My wife and I have invited a crowd of craps/To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps/ You'd care to join us?’ No, thanks, I’d rather be alone thinking, says Larkin, instead of at the party listening to 'the drivel of some bitch/ Who's read nothing but Which' or 'asking that ass about his fool research'. In the end, however, he comes to the conclusion that the prospect of sitting alone makes him feel more depressed, thus he replies, 'Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course -'. I can understand the sentiment. More and more these days I feel I need more time to write, and this can force a resentment on all the do’s there are to go to, but also, I hate to miss out on The Fun. So, most likely, I’ll be there until the bitter end for as Groucho Marx has once quipped, although not about me, 'She is afraid, that if she leaves she’ll become the life of the party.' As such, there will be the consumption of too much cheap wine on the night and embarrassing Facebook photos and a bad head in the morning.
What of my guests? T. S. Eliot, when asked by a woman whether he was enjoying the party they were both attending, replied: 'Yes, if you see the essential horror of it all.' Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath met at a magazine launch party in which a poem of hers had been given a bad review. Feeling amorous Hughes tried to kiss her, and Plath, feeling less so, bit his cheek and drew blood. Even a bad party can start up one of the most infamous literary relationships of the 20th century.
So, with literature, literati and social gatherings one must learn to expect the unexpected. The internet is packed with tips on how to host a literary tea party. Hints include ‘Make the party fun, not stuffy.’ And ‘Choose a story that is funny and upbeat.’
So with my book launches coming up I shall hope that my guests turn up and are not, as in Chekhov’s story ‘The Party’ only 'boring cranks, hypocrites, or idiots…’ or, indeed, fakes and frenemies but instead friends, well-wishers, fans and literary lovers. You can hope that the hosts turn up and don’t do a Gatsby or Saatchi, but then again, I’ve heard that in their absence they throw the best parties.