A few weeks ago, I proposed that my current book club transition into a literary salon. As I pitched to my fellow clubbers, the differences between these two traditions may be subtle, but they add up to create a very different experience of engaging with literature. A book club is merely a gathering of people who are able to spare the time to read the same book and want to discuss it. A literary salon, on the other hand, is a collection of likeminded individuals who gather to explore intellectual topics together, often sharing their own writing. At a book club, the members are focused on a single book; at a literary salon, the gathering focuses on general literature and concepts. Plus, I argued, how glamorous would it be to dress up and meet in a fancy new venue to discuss literature for a change?
Ever wondered how Fitzgerald and Hemingway, along with so many other famous early 20th century writers, developed such close friendships? Well, we owe that small-world feeling in part to the tradition of literary salons. Literary salons first started popping up in Italy over the course of the 16th century and became more popular in the 17th and 18th centuries in France.
Originally, these salon gatherings were quite intimate, occurring in the bedroom, where the host, or salonnière, would lay on her bed and guests would sit around the room, taking part in delightful, intellectual discourse. In the 1920s, Gertrude Stein, an influential American writer, operated her own, extremely exclusive literary salon in Paris, opening her doors only to the most erudite of her colleagues, which included Fitzgerald and Hemingway, of course. Salons have been written into the history books because of their capacity to bring together and influence important thinkers of the time, but they are also noteworthy because of the central role women played in their creation; most salonnières were women, which is significant because women were not often acknowledged in the public sphere as intellectuals at the time.
In the years since the heyday of the literary salon, the world has gotten a lot bigger. There's so much more knowledge being produced — how could one possibly keep up with all the “important” literature written in a year? — and so little time in the regular working day to set aside for intellectual musings. Plus, the fast-paced, accessible nature of the film and TV industry can outpace us readers, so that we end up leaving books on the side table for far longer than we'd like in favor of finishing the newest season of Grey’s Anatomy. That’s why a literary salon can be a special treat today — an opportunity to engage deeply with texts and ideas doesn’t come around often anymore. It’s worth dedicating a few hours to the worship of intellect.
Every literary salon should have a stated goal to thoroughly examine a particular topic and place that topic in conversation. You could choose a more craft-oriented theme, like what constitutes a well-done story arc, or a hotly contested ideological topic, like what kind of characters a writer should be allowed to represent in their work. After choosing a theme, you’ll be ready to form a more concrete image of what form you want your salon to take.
The 18th century is over, so holding the gathering in your own bedroom is probably not the right call, but you do need an appropriate venue in which to host your salon — preferably one with a romantic atmosphere that will inspire creative thought. You’re aiming for a classic feel, so unless you’ve got a killer dining room, maybe consider booking a cafe or a gallery. The surroundings can deeply affect the mood of the gathering, so make sure you pick wisely.
A salon is certainly a networking opportunity, but your guests shouldn't just be roaming around aimlessly. Most salons feature a few planned presentations in addition to a series of rigorous Q&A sessions. Keeping the theme of your night in mind, you should invite presenters whom you hold in high esteem and who will have something to say about the topic at hand. Tell the presenters to keep their spiel short, so that there's more time to delve into the material as a group and it doesn't start to feel like a lecture series.
In addition to handpicking your presenters, you need to find yourself a worthy public. Choose people you respect and people who might be intrigued by your theme. Above all, invite the friends that you know will be willing to devote an evening to self-indulgent study. Most of the fun of a literary salon lies in the people present.
Creating buzz can look different depending on whether you want to keep your salon small and personal or open attendance up to the public. In the latter case, you should advertise the existence of your salon by creating a media presence — at the very least in the form of a Facebook event — and making it clear to all your invitees that anyone is welcome. If your salon is a more private affair, opt instead to spend time on making the invitations special to create a vibe of exclusivity.
In order to further differentiate the practice of literary salons from common book clubs, it’s nice to institute a dress code. At any given one of Stein’s salons, you would have found countless creatives crawling underfoot dressed to the nines. Emulating that old-world respect for intellect is part of why you’re hosting a salon in the first place, so dress the part.
Would Hemingway have attended one of these events sober? Don’t think so. His “Write drunk, edit sober” mentality was all the rage in the 20s, when salons last held cultural significance, and as a result, no salon could be complete without copious amounts of wine and whiskey on hand. If your salon features an open bar, the alcohol won't be the only thing flowing freely — with any luck, conversation will, too.