Spread the word: The rise of the literary night out

Forget book clubs – discerning readers now prefer literary salons and themed evenings where best-selling authors perform for their fans.

Anna Goodall
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:21

It's a sunny Tuesday evening and I'm running late for my regular slot as co-host of the literary night, Literary Death Match. Stepping off the 73 bus, I almost collide with the crowd of punters streaming into the Old Queen's Head in Islington, London. Upstairs, the room is rammed, and I have just enough time to sink a vodka and tonic before taking to the stage beside writer and LDM creator, Todd Zuniga.

The night, which Zuniga started in New York in 2006 and brought over here last year, is the closest anyone's come to a literary game show. Three celebrities judge the performances of four writers reading head-to-head, two in each half; the victors then meet in the always ludicrous finale – Play Your Cards Right with canonical poets was an especial favourite.

The London night has seen Orange Prize-nominated novelist Evie Wyld trying to score a World Cup goal with a banana; poet and novelist Joe Dunthorne bringing the house down with his half-rap/half-poem "Status Anxiety", which involved the audience shouting, "You're still gonna die!" to his list of middle-class achievements; and legendary journalist and Sohoite Molly Parkin flouting all but the most basic of her judging duties to hilariously hold forth about how she is secretly a gay man.

Welcome to the new world of literary nights where entertainment is king and the youthful attendees not only want to feel they are in the right place at the right time, but also expect to encounter literature and poetry in new ways. The key is accessibility, so that while the literati will be in attendance, the nights also appeal to a larger demographic – people looking for a good night out, bookish or not.

Two other successful producers of this mix are the Book Club Boutique and the Shoreditch House Literary Salon. The former, founded by writer Salena Godden and HarperCollins editor Rachel Rayner in 2009, is pure Soho madness with a stream of readers, musicians and heavy drinkers ensuring things slide from the sublime to the ridiculous and back again before you can say "Jeffrey Bernard". The latter is a more suave affair started by journalist, playwright and bon viveur Damian Barr. Sponsored by legal firm Thomas Eggar and with Hendrick's free-flowing, Barr's night certainly has style, but it also packs a heavy literary punch drawing readers like Louis de Bernières, Diana Athill and David Mitchell, who read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at the salon months before its publication.

Audiences' desire to engage more informally with authors may also explain why non-fiction nights are becoming increasingly popular. Rosie Boycott's night, 5x15, began at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill early this year and has seen readers like Deborah Moggach, Yotam Ottolenghi and Brian Eno telling real "tales of passion, obsession, adventure and great achievement" at 15 minutes a go. And back east, Jean Hannah Edelstein's night, Let Me Tell You About Me, also started a few months ago and is held monthly at the appropriately named Book Club in Shoreditch – currently the venue for hip literary events.

Edelstein describes it as "a memoir-focused storytelling night in which great storytellers, published writers and people who just tell the best stories at cocktail parties, are brought together". Since starting early this year, the New York-born journalist has been taken aback by the "tremendous enthusiasm" for the event, suggesting its success is due to the diversity of readers and the night's relaxed atmosphere. The last event featured novelist Alex Preston, Hetty Marriott-Brittan, a district nurse, and the actor and journalist Elisha Sessions.

In an increasingly fragmented marketplace authors need to adapt to an interactive environment whereby readers can encounter them on a more personal level. And why not? Many authors enjoy these events in contrast to formal readings that can seem anachronistic and less relevant. The atmosphere at the new nights is of literary camaraderie, rather than reverence. But does this shift signal more emphasis on PR and "personality", and less on literary rigour?

Many young writers today seem "schooled" in presentation: they know how to pitch to agents and publishers, they are confident live performers, friendly and professional. You have to be so well-adjusted and sociable to be a writer these days. You can't be unpleasant and difficult anymore... and you can forget about becoming a recluse.

Writer Kirstin Innes, one of the organisers of the Glasgow night of spoken word, music and film, Words Per Minute, suggests the decentralisation of the literary market is something new authors should exploit. "I think people are discovering new work in different ways," she explains, suggesting live events, blogs, social networking and word of mouth are increasingly more significant. On a personal note, she has had several stories published "because the editors of those collections had seen me perform them first of all", and finds that performing work "helps with the writing process itself".

Sandra Taylor, a senior press officer at Picador, agrees, explaining that new and more innovative live events are invaluable for connecting with audiences: "Five years ago, you'd have been hard pushed to name a handful of literary events that weren't bookshop-based."

Back at the Book Club in Shoreditch, Future Human, an interactive lecture series run by the people behind Bad Idea magazine, decided to tackle some of these issues head-on with their June talk, "Immersion Drama" – a consideration of how digital technologies are creating "new narrative possibilities and new audience demands: for immersion, interactivity and personal experiences".

The night, which included debate and audience-led brainstorming, kicked off with a brilliant talk from organiser Ben Beaumont-Thomas about the fourth dimension of storytelling. His argument that our "real" and digital selves will begin to conflate as the 21st century progresses and thus new narratives and transmedia ways of telling stories will emerge, took in video games that develop chapter by chapter like novels, the iPad and the way its interactivity is changing the formerly private act of reading, Lost, Apollinaire, Nine Inch Nails and the cult video game Donkey Kong.

This need for "immersion" is a challenge for a tradition-bound publishing world. They need to actively engage with a youthful and increasingly technology-savvy literary scene, with events providing ideas forums, a stage for new writing talent, and crucially, a way of keeping in touch with what people actually want and enjoy.

One publisher already wise to this is the Edinburgh-based independent, Canongate, whose night of fiction, poetry, live music and short film, Irregular, started last year. While at least one Canongate author is featured – June's event caused a particular stir with Nick Cave giving a darkly charismatic reading from his novel The Death of Bunny Munro – the emphasis is on new writers, and the night attracts a twentysomething crowd who leave wanting to know more about what they have seen.

And while the London scene is currently in especially rude health, it's clear that live literature events are also flourishing nationwide. Moving south across the border from Irregular and the aforementioned Words Per Minute, Ten by Ten run by poets and Zebra Publishing founders, Jeff Price and Annie Moir, is one of Newcastle's top literary outings, while in Hull poets Joe Hakim and Mike Watts organise Write to Speak, which takes place at the new Hull Truck Theatre. Since starting in June last year, the night has proved immensely popular and their latest project is a series of Larkin-inspired workshops that will culminate in an event with participants ranging from a 19-year-old rapper from Iraq to a 78-year-old reading poems about Hull's fishing industry. Sheffield and Bradford also have much to offer, thanks to events run by the poet Joe Kriss under the banner Word Life.

Meanwhile, a little further south, young poets, including John Osborne and Molly Naylor, founded the Norwich Poetry Club – "a boutique poetry event" – earlier this year. The club offers a more concentrated poetry experience featuring a half-hour set from a visiting poet, and another 30 minutes from one of the night's talented founders.

And if you've still got enough energy, head across to Cardiff and you can attend Balloon, the project of writer Matthew David Scott and record label owner Matt Jarrett. The two started the night after becoming convinced they could achieve the same "loyalty and passion" at a literary night they commonly witnessed at gigs. Held in music venues all around the city there's an infectious enthusiasm about what they do and July's programme includes "a huge boxing-themed outdoor poetry BBQ".

The emphasis on entertainment doesn't lessen the quality of these nights. Rather the focus on format and fun papers over the cracks of more mediocre performances, allowing talent to shine. Ultimately, it can only fortify a battle-weary publishing industry if we keep showing our passion for discovering new ways of interacting with the written word by attending in our droves.

Words in motion: Alternative live literary evenings

Book Slam

Started by novelist Patrick Neate in 2003, the original "literary club night" held at the Tabernacle in Notting Hill, is still going strong. July's events included readings from Zadie Smith, and a performance from her younger brother, stand-up and rapper Doc Brown. The illustrious roll call of previous readers includes William Boyd, A L Kennedy, Jonathan Safran Foer, and Hanif Kureishi, to name but a very few.

The Betsey Trotwood

This no-nonsense London pub's literary nights see established favourites like John Hegley, Simon Munnery and Hugo Williams keeping company with talented youngsters – poets like Ashna Sarkar, Ahren Warner and Helen Mort – all set to a backdrop of much beer and whisky drinking. Roddy Lumsden's BroadCast night and readings for Tim Wells's cult poetry 'zine 'Rising' are particular favourites on its events calendar.


Poetry events in the North-east run by the poet and comedian, Kate Fox. Fox, an experienced performer who is currently poet-in-residence on Radio 4's Saturday Live, recently organised a Hyperlexic mini-residency at the North Shields Boxing Gym that featured poets Joe Hakim and Jess Johnson, and culminated in a performance of poetry at a boxing tournament.

Penned in the Margins at Aubin & Wills

A boutique-style preppy-cool clothes shop in London's Holland Park may not seem the most auspicious venue for a poetry reading but you can't argue with the quality of readers this industrious indie publisher, also responsible for the innovative London Word Festival, lines up. August's stellar event features Glyn Maxwell, Clare Pollard, Simon Barraclough and Joe Dunthorne.

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