Sarah Glazer explores her London salon and the benefits of being a cheeky American.

Writing is such a solitary profession that it’s not surprising to find writers’ salons catching on in the United States. But in London, it’s still a relatively foreign idea. Bringing together total strangers to express openly their doubts and fears about writing? Getting to meet that art critic you’ve admired from afar? Approaching a writer whose specialty is now the subject of your poetry? So cheekily American.

Last week, on a rainy evening in London, 30 women writers climbed the four flights to my flat on Upper Wimpole Street for our new women writers’ salon.

My English compatriots told me I should be astonished that so many showed up. For one thing, it was extremely un-English to bring that many strangers into a room together and expect social and intellectual intimacy in one evening. For another, whether English or American, women have historically been reluctant to network as a way of getting ahead in their fields.

I’m probably like a lot of women when I say I feel a little guilty about getting work through a social connection. How do I know that assignment came on the basis of merit if a friend knew the editor in question? Do men ever ask themselves that question?

Apparently not, or not as often as women, judging from a recent study by the London Business School that sought an explanation for the paucity of top women at Britain’s major corporations. Surprise: Women are bad networkers.

“I know one woman who loathes networking because she thinks it’s deeply manipulative,” one management consultant told the British Times.

Women’s reluctance to schmooze when it comes to work contacts is probably exacerbated by a certain British social awkwardness.

The founder of a precursor London Salon, the late American biographer Diane Middlebrook, gleefully broke the rules of class-bound British society whenever she found herself at a party. Defying the English convention of never speaking to strangers unless introduced by a mutual acquaintance, Diane would cheekily stick her hand out and announce her name, forcing the taken-aback British party-goers to reveal (horrors!) their identities. (You see, if you’re the Earl of Leicester, everyone is ALREADY supposed to know who you are.)

Perhaps it is just this loosening of the social conventions that has made our Salon such a surprising success ever since two American writer friends, Jenny McPhee and Erin Cramer, and I joined forces with British writer Miranda Seymour, to revive it a couple of months ago. As we were surrounded last week by salonierres drinking white wine and making a cheerful hubbub, one distinguished British writer confided in me, a salon is “not very English.”

What’s more English? Formal organizations like the Royal Society of Literature. There a writer gives a speech before orderly rows of listeners, then answers polite questions before being whisked off for a private dinner with luminaries from the Society.

What’s been different about the salon is that writers have a chance to converse as peers about subjects that are often kept under covers. So it was at our first salon. Primo Levi biographer Carol Angier and fiction writer/biographer Sally Cline spoke about the moral dilemmas faced by biographers and memoirists. Is your loyalty to those you write about or to your readers? And which version represents the truth?

Their talk opened a vigorous debate about how faithfully memoir should represent reality. And created an intimate space where writers felt comfortable enough to reveal the ethical and practical dilemmas they’ve faced in their work.

Maybe we Americans bring that Henry Jamesian characteristic to Europe after all—a blithe confidence that we’ll be welcomed on strange shores—inherited with our pioneering tradition.

For me, the real joy of the salon has been the intellectual excitement of having a back-and-forth exchange with writers I admire. But if I was as comfortable at networking as a man, I would have crowed at the start that I got a story assignment through the Salon. And even got nibbles from a couple of London papers who had heard about my work through the “Bloomsbury grapevine.” For an American girl who idolized the Bloomsbury circle of Virginia Woolf, how cool is that?

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Comment by State of the Art on April 21, 2010 at 11:08am
What an amazing story, Evalyn. Glad you made it home even if it's not quite home to us New Yorkers.
Comment by Evalyn Lee on April 21, 2010 at 8:45am
I just got back to London through the volcanic ash cloud late last night. It was a strange journey. The great thing about a strange journey is the chance you get to look at your life. I have spent the last ten years not living in London while living in London. I'm from New York. I'm always from New York. Standing, with my two children, at the BA counter in Boston, I was faced with a decision: to get on a plane with no guaranteed destination or stay in the US for untold weeks. "The question is 'do you want to get home'?" said the BA manager. My children were scared. I was scared. Travelling with people you love and not knowing where you are going is just like writing. You have to decide whether to keep moving forward while not knowing if you are making the wrong or right decision. The last thing the pilot said before take-off at nine o'clock in Boston was that we had enough fuel to get to North Africa. At 11:30 last night, the plane landed in Shannon, Ireland. We sat the runway. We were asked to wait. Cell phones, Blackberries, iphones, erupted out of jackets, purses and pockets and the communication with the outside world began. Talking to each other was the only thing making this journey possible. The pilot asked us to stay in our seats. There was no news. Then there was 'new' news. We could go 'home' to England if we just stayed in our seats. So we sat, re-fueled, de-iced, and then took off for the tarmac of Heathrow. We were the fourth plane to arrive out of the silent skies, in London, in six days. Everyone on the plane cheered. Very un-English and yet very, very English. The world worked in an amazing way. People got on planes not knowing where they were going. This was only possible because people chose to communicate with each other. 8000 BA passengers took off yesterday hoping to reach home but heading only towards the unknown. Each of us boarded the plane with our own fears and doubts. Your article about the importance of networking is very inspiring. Thank you. A wonderful teacher, Maureen Brady, invited me to join She always reminds her students that writers write. Thank you for reminding us that the other important thing writers need to do is share their journey. Thanks for the article. Evalyn Lee
Comment by Bev Murrill on April 19, 2010 at 7:30pm
I'm an Aussie writer in the Uk... anything going somewhere in Essex?
Comment by Dominique Millette on April 19, 2010 at 10:10am
Interesting you should bring this up. I believe there are very logical reasons for women to be reluctant networkers and wrote a post about this on my blog:
Comment by Deborah Siegel on April 18, 2010 at 8:30pm
Way cool, you cheeky American! And I love thinking about all these women writers' Salons as providing an alternative to the proverbial male golf course. Brilliant. Fabulously cheeky post.
Comment by Christina Brandon on April 18, 2010 at 6:00pm
Great post! Ditto on the difficulties of networking. (And I'm an introvert so putting myself out there can be so nerve-racking that I just don't do it!) But I don't think networking is necessarily manipulative, though it can be. I see it more as a way of getting your name out there and getting recognition for your work. Also, the salon idea sounds doubly great because you're also creating a support-network where (fabulous women) writers can exchange ideas and talk and not just schmooze for work.
Comment by Diana Gittins on April 16, 2010 at 1:09pm
It sounds amazing. Networking feels terrifying to me, maybe because of living so long in the UK, yet it is so vital. It is, I think, even harder in the South West where we tend to be very scattered. Are provincials welcome at the salon, or is it only for Londoners?
Comment by K. A. Laity on April 16, 2010 at 12:37pm
I totally agree with the difficulties of networking: women are always being accused of manipulating (because indirect power was the only kind they had in so many situations). It took me ages to realise that the power of the old boys network wasn't necessarily always a deliberate thing, but just grew out of friendships -- of course, men have often found it difficult to be friends with women in the same way.

So how do I sign up?! And do you really only serve white wine?! If so, I withdraw the first question.


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