At a recent festival, the subject under debate was whether there was such a thing as literary London but, because a high proportion of the audience were would-be writers, an edgy, anxious discussion soon developed about the art of networking. Where should one be seen? Who should one meet?
Those of us on stage tried at first to remind the audience that it was what you wrote not who you know that was important but, in the end, we had to admit that strategic party-going is as important as it ever was. To make their way in the modern literary world, writers have become visibly and actively social, popping up, like Will Self, on the ghastly TV comedy quiz Shooting Stars or advancing their careers by being appearing in a special author’s edition of the humiliation show, The Weakest Link.
For the beginner, the problem is simple. Which literary events are worth attending? A full networking guide would require an entire issue of The Author but here, in the meantime, is a starter pack, listing the top events in the literary calendar which no upwardly mobile author can afford to miss.
1. A small, exclusive dinner-party in an exclusive Manhattan restaurant to mark the publication of a new novel by Philip Roth.
Phil, as you will know, does not do publicity – one interview around publication, preferably with Hermione Lee, and then he is back to his desk to work on a new masterpiece. If you can let it be known that you were at his launch dinner-party, beside a handful of high-cred Hollywood stars, a former President, a Nobel laureate and two beautiful and available young novelists, you can relax for the rest of the year. For the moment, your literary reputation is made.
2. An AS Byatt launch party.
For reasons that no one quite understands, an invitation to celebrate Antonia’s latest is a passport to acceptability. I once stumbled into one by accident and, frankly, my career has never looked back.
3. PEN International Writers Day
Any author of seriousness and ambition should be a member of PEN, now the hottest and most fashionable writers’ group in the world. An appearance at PEN’s glittering annual event not only confirms your commitment to freedom of speech but also affords you the chance to talk to the most influential and powerful literary figures of our time. The speeches and prize-giving can occasionally drag and, in the past, the lunch offered by the Café Royal has been a witty if cruel reminder of the problem of world hunger, but almost always there is some kind of minor ruckus, usually involving Harold Pinter, to enliven proceedings.
4. The Nibbies.
This annual orgy of excess and self-congratulation, also known as the British Book Awards, is an embarrassing but essential rite of passage for the ambitious author. On stage, celebrities present prizes and plug their forthcoming books while in the dining-room – “the trough” as it is known in the book trade – publishers brawl, shout and grope one another under the tables. It is customary for invited authors to sleep with a senior book industry figure after this event – I’ve done my duty over the past few years – but this is not compulsory.
5. The Society of Authors Awards Party.
Many less experienced writers, too easily influenced by the arts gossip column of the Sunday broadsheets, fall into the trap of believing that receptions for the Booker, Whitbread and other vulgar prizes are where one should be seen. This is a terrible mistake. Literary awards sponsored by large companies are often little more than works outings for middle management executives who want to be seen with their lady wives on TV. Sophisticated networkers make sure they attend one event: the superb, civilised evening of top-class literary discussion organised by the Society at which authors feel at ease and the numbers of fringe types – agents, remainder merchants, booksellers, publishers – are ruthlessly kept to a minimum.
6. World Book Day.
This event at which authors try to convince the world that they are writing not for reasons of vanity or greed but for love, kiddies and the greater good of humanity, is an essential date in the calendar. It is tough and sometimes undignified – there is a moderate to serious risk injury from being elbowed or kneed as authors jostle to be photographed by the press – but, if you are not there, people will begin to think you might be dead or, worse, unpublished.
7. Your publisher’s sales conference abroad.
Here, yet again, authors will be required to talk, smile, laugh and go to bed with editors or sometimes even sales managers from their publishing firms, but on this occasion the sacrifice is worth it. Nothing will be remembered of your books in the post-conference haze but the fact that you have proved to be just an ordinary bloke/bird may stand you in good stead when your book is being subscribed.
8.The Northern Remainder and Promotional Fair
Many authors wrongly believe that being seen at this annual knees-up for the remainder trade is an admission of defeat. In fact, it is enormously stylish and those who tuck into the annual chip butty and tomato sauce dinner often make useful contacts that will stand them in good stead during rougher times.
9.The UEA Creative Writers Meet-the-Agents party
This can also be a rough affair with MA Creative Writing students from the University of East Anglia kicking, stamping and gouging each others’ eyes out in their attempts to offer themselves to the right agents. On the other hand, the general air of anxiety and desperation can work in the established author’s advantage since most of the students will end up as jobbing reviewers or as researchers for an arts programme.
10. The Hatchards Author of the Year Party.
Once a year, the bookshop Hatchards distributes joy or despair among the ranks of authors by conferring or denying them a place at their annual party. Invitations are extended more or less randomly and then, just to make the whole thing more fun, are frequently sent to the wrong address. As a result, guests have to pass through heaving ranks of the uninvited who are pleading their literary credentials to a stony-faced Hatchards bouncer. Sweeping past these also-rans, fanning oneself with an invitation, can be one of the highlights of the literary year.