Is a New York start-up bringing back the literary salon?

A recently launched start-up called Book the Writer is connecting notable authors with reading groups in Manhattan and Brooklyn, promising book clubbers a literary experience that is “truly special and utterly memorable.” The cost of Book the Writer’s services is pretty memorable too. Julie Bosman of the New York Times reports that a small Upper West Side book club recently shelled out $750 to entice Alexandra Styron (as in, the daughter of William Styron) to their group, where she spoke about her memoir, Reading My Father. More than sixty authors – including Pulitzer Prize winners Michael Cunningham and Sheri Fink – have agreed to participate in the venture. For each book club appearance, writers score $400 (the rest of the $750 goes to the venture), and an opportunity to promote their latest work among the city’s bibliophiles.

Now, there isn’t anything wrong with authors cashing in on publicity appearances. As Bosman mentions in her Times piece, publishing houses often make writers Skype into book clubs without compensating them for their time, which doesn’t seem particularly reasonable or fair. But there’s something slightly off-putting about Book the Writer, perhaps because it promotes a rather blatantly elitist version of the modern-day reading group. Should the venture take off, it may very well prove to be the start of an interesting, retrograde shift in the evolution of the book club.

Today’s book lovers have hundreds of reading groups at their fingertips, maybe even thousands, now that book clubs are starting to shift to online forums. While a lot of these clubs focus on relatively highbrow stuff — literary classics, award-winning novels, political biographies, what have you — there are just as many groups devoted to literature that will never see a Pulitzer Prize. Or any prize, for that matter. In Manhattan alone,  readers can get together and chat about chick lit, “smutty books” (chick lit, plus bondage), YA novels, and horror fiction. There are oodles of fantasy and sci-fi reading groups too, for those who are in the know about the goings-on of Middle-earth and Winterfell. Which is to say that book clubs have become wonderfully democratic institutions, catering to a wide range of interests and open to anyone with the ability to read and the inclination to discuss their favourite  genre.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the 1700s, before literacy began to permeate class boundaries, the literary “salon” was the exclusive purview of the social upper crust (and usually dominated by women). Discussion in these salons tended to concentrate on broad literary concepts rather than a single book, and notable intellectuals were invited to preside over the conversation in order to bolster the prestige of the gathering. Smaller reading groups that focused on specific works of literature began to crop up in the 19th century, and membership was often restricted to women of leisure who had inherited a spot in the group. The ancestor of the modern book club was, in other words, quite the marker of wealth and status.

Fast forward 200 years, and Book the Writer seems to be encouraging a return to the aristocratic reading group of the Victorian era; the venture offers wealthy New Yorkers the opportunity to host literary gatherings that are graced by the presence of well-known authors, whose company is acquired for a price that most readers can’t afford. And New York is the perfect place for this trend to take off; as Bosman puts it, the city “has a glut of … devoted readers, many of them with unusually deep pockets.” As for the rest of us … well, we can be grateful for our author-free book clubs, which at the very least are conducive to spirited reader discussion. After all, you can’t trash a book’s plot trajectory if its author is sitting within earshot, snacking on the same platter of cheese and crackers. And if you happen to have particularly strong feelings about Fifty Shades of Grey or A Game of Thrones, here are links to some of the groups that I refer to in this post:

Chick Lit Book Club:

Smutty Book Club:

NYC Fantasy and Sci-Fi Book Club:

Forever Young Adult book club:

Arkham Horror Book Club:

Happy Clubbing!