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?