In Praise of the DIY Book Party
Alison Kinney Prepares for Launch, Will Not Be Cooking Mrs. Ramsay’s boeuf en daube
I signed my first book contract 14 months ago. If you’d asked me about my party plans, I’d have told you, “I’ll bake something.”
Then I might have mentioned that, when my mom and I catered my wedding, I’d baked a triple-tier cake decorated with pastillage roses. Or alluded to the party I threw to celebrate my husband’s first book. We welcomed crowds of friends and colleagues to a dinner of basil-oil-flecked white gazpacho, homemade breads and pastries, a dozen other heirloom vegetable dishes, chocolate and salted caramel tart and two other pies, four flavors of home-churned ice cream and three kinds of macaron. The party raged all night, with toasts, a raffle, and the necessary fight that cements everybody else’s goodwill. I washed dishes from 3 to 5 am, then preheated the oven for the stragglers’ brunch.
After all the silent, solitary labor of writing a book, the party is one of those epochal moments, like holding the author copies or reading (or stalwartly avoiding) your first review. It’s the release from anticipation and dread. It says: yes, you’ve accomplished this thing, you’ve caused a ripple in our collective consciousness. For the rest of your life, you will be a person who’s published a book. Now it begins.
And now, everything ends. Only a few medievalists and university libraries would buy Karl’s academic manifesto on critical animal theory and the Middle Ages. He couldn’t count on readers, reviewers, royalties, fame, or even citations; all he could do was get to work on the second book. But in the meantime, I could give him a book party, where he’d feel like a star.
This time around, the book party’s for me.
* * * *
In the countdown to publication, I’m sitting up late, researching book parties, trying not to google myself or freak out. I’m finding dozens of earnest articles by librarians trying to drum up children’s interest in books. “Plan a program of skits, oral presentations, and book reviews! Provide refreshments!” This advice also works for authors’ parties. We, too, yearn to develop positive reading attitudes in our audiences. We just supplement the oral presentations with booze.
Publishing a book at all is an immense privilege, but apart from the physical object of the book, the processes are largely invisible. Book parties carry the symbolic excess, signaling arrival, success, the writer’s induction into the literati. “We had a book party at Brentano’s,” said Charles Henri Ford, who partied with both Gertrude Stein and Andy Warhol. “Susan Sontag came and I haven’t seen her since. That was when Max’s Kansas City was going strong. One day [Ford’s book, Spare Parts] was passed around the table there and everybody said, ‘This is it. This is what’s happening now. This is the ’60s.’”
It was even more fabulous to take book parties in stride. Robert Boyers described poet and translator Ben Belitt as growing “more and more content to live his life in creative and contemplative isolation… though now and again he would join his Bennington colleagues in an evening of square dancing or take a train to New York for a dinner appointment with Neruda or an awards ceremony or book party.” Like dining with our good pal Neruda, a book party is just it. It’s what’s happening now: square dancing, Sontag, and glory.
It goes without saying that elite book events mirror and recreate the structural inequalities of publishing. Junot Díaz once dismissed the book party as a crumb of largesse: “I had to leave Santo Domingo to even have a chance to be acknowledged by elites. These are not people who would sit down at my grandfather’s house in Villa Juana to have dinner with me. They certainly are not going to do it now. But if they had a little house party, a little book party, they’d let me come.” Keorapetse Kgositsile damned them outright: “We are not interested in how it is to be an artist, if the artist is finally interested in fooling around with paints and brushes or in perverse juggling with words, while he contemplates his next royalty check or how he is going to mesmerize his liberal patrons at the next exhibition or book party; we are interested in how it is to be alive.”
For the most part, the fabulous—or reactionary—book party is going the way of anachronistic fantasy. Publisher-funded sprees are rare. The majority of contemporary authors throw their own parties, in hopes of selling enough books to buy enough wine and cheese for the next party—to sell a couple more books. They party to pay their bills or fulfill contractual obligations. But forever and always, they party to celebrate the fact that the Damn Thing Is Finally Out. And not least of all, to thank and acknowledge loved ones: the friends who plied us with chocolate while we bawled that we were imposters, imposters! The manuscript readers whose comments saved us from grievous errors. The besties who clicked Like on our hundredth Facebook update about the Damn Thing. That’s the best reason for throwing our DIY book parties.
I surveyed my favorite writer’s community, across a range of genres and experiences:
· Literary novelist Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s publisher funded the launch for Shape of the Sky, folding in three other launches to shave costs. “It took some getting used to, having to share in this way, but in the end was a very nice event.”
· A yarn store hosted screenwriter and playwright Laura Birek’s signing for Picture Perfect Knits, billing her as an attraction alongside indie yarn dyers.
· Jill Caryl Weiner (When We Became Three: A Memory Book for the Modern Family) had no money and no plans, until her children’s preschool threw her a party.
· Minal Hajratwala convinced a cookbook author—her mother, Bhanu—to make a hundred samosas to celebrate her Lambda Literary and Pen USA Award-winning memoir, Leaving India.
· Linda K. Wertheimer (Faith Ed., Teaching About Religion In An Age of Intolerance) hired a baker who decorated her party cake with crosses, learned the book advocated for diverse religious education, then repiped the crosses into flowers. “It made for a busy-looking cake.”
· Lasara Firefox Allen’s DIY team of fundraisers planned a sex-positive Sexy Witch launch with a mansion, hot tub, go-go dancers, and “play party” room. They charged admission, recouping all their costs. (Sometimes one thinks one has gone into the wrong genre.)
· Jennifer Coburn’s launch for We’ll Always Have Paris recreated Paris for 150 guests, with food, wine—and a mime. “Make sure you love a good party, because you don’t make a lot of money at these things. I make a dollar a book and sold 125 copies. That is actually what I paid the mime.”
· Nyasha Junior (An Introduction to Womanist Biblical Interpretation) went with a carefully planned Twitter launch: no mess, no stress!
· Nicole Audrey Spector (Fifty Shades of Dorian Gray) told me, “I gave up planning mine and ending up not doing anything. I wish I hadn’t.”
· Jeannine Hall Gailey (The Robot Scientist’s Daughter) said, “I’ve thrown little parties for every book, from in my home, to a pizza place, and, last time, a local arts center. I’m a poet, so it’s less about making money through book sales than just celebrating getting the book out! It’s important to celebrate the good things in a writer’s life, because there are so many rejections and discouragements.”
These are the lengths to which writers will go to develop positive reading attitudes.
Under the weight of expectation, some of us worry about coming off like Blanche DuBois, sticking a paper lantern over a lightbulb: “Oh look, we have created enchantment….” Most of the authors mentioned their feelings of joy, gratitude, and support at the parties. I know what they mean. I wanted to throw literary dinner parties before I knew how to cook, years before I started writing, because of a casserole of beef, wine, and olive oil that united a tableful of guests in a moment of triumphal beauty. It was Mrs. Ramsay’s boeuf en daube, in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse.
Everything seemed possible. Everything seemed right. Just now (but this cannot last, she thought, dissociating herself from the moment while they were all talking about boots) just now she had reached security; she hovered like a hawk suspended; like a flag floated in an element of joy which filled every nerve of her body fully and sweetly, not noisily, solemnly rather, for it arose, she thought, looking at them all eating there, from husband and children and friends; all of which rising in this profound stillness (she was helping William Bankes to one very small piece more, and peered into the depths of the earthenware pot) seemed now for no special reason to stay there like a smoke, like a fume rising upwards, holding them safe together. Nothing need be said; nothing could be said. There it was, all round them. It partook, she felt, carefully helping Mr. Bankes to a specially tender piece, of eternity; as she had already felt about something different once before that afternoon; there is a coherence in things, a stability; something, she meant, is immune from change, and shines out (she glanced at the window with its ripple of reflected lights) in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby; so that again tonight she had the feeling she had had once today, already, of peace, of rest. Of such moments, she thought, the thing is made that endures.
I wanted radiance and possibility; I wanted everything I loved in Woolf’s writing. That was why, in the first year of my MFA, I threw a To the Lighthouse dinner party for my classmates. The short story writer I was in love with never bothered to show up; a novelist spilled coke all over the bathroom and red wine on the carpet; my teacher drove his car into my neighbor’s fence and had to be separated from his keys; but together, eating my triumphant boeuf en daube and discussing modernism in the candlelight, the 30 of us became Bloomsbury.
I wanted to be Mrs. Ramsay, if I couldn’t be Virginia Woolf. For much of my life as a nominal writer, I entertained far more successfully than I wrote. Parties justified my existence as a so-called creative who had nothing written to show for her efforts. Cooking was how I communicated with, thanked, and loved people; it was my gateway to radiance.
Then I wrote a book, and now, I feel exposed. Not just because I’m making my first real public appearance as a writer, which is unnerving for everybody. What’s worse is the nakedness of having no platters of baklava and mini bisteeya pastries to hide behind. At the book party, there will be no boeuf en daube, no gougères; I’m bringing banana bread, because I can’t do nothing. But it will be a foodie disaster. My new writing life bars me from cooking in any semblance of the old way.
It had never occurred to me that I’d face my guests empty-handed. It’s terrifying. And so far, it’s the best thing to have happened in my writing career.
* * * *
The clue that the Mrs. Ramsay model might not work for my writing was right out in the open: Mrs. Ramsay didn’t cook the boeuf en daube. Her cook, Mildred, spent three days over it. And Mrs. Dalloway may have bought the flowers herself, but she didn’t buy the groceries, or do any of the cooking or cleanup. Woolf’s novels say a lot about class, gender, and power, about who accomplishes household labor and who gets the credit, the ambivalence of success in domestic and intellectual realms, the value of women’s work, the terms of radiance. That radiance, after all, is made of words, not beef.
About a year and a half ago, I was on the verge of giving up writing for good. I was also on a preserving rampage: blood orange marmalade, caramelized rhubarb jam, and red pepper jelly. Then things shifted. I had deadlines to meet, a book proposal to write—a book manuscript to write. I started skipping meals, stopped shopping. One night, Karl and I realized we had no pasta, bread, beans, eggs, rice, milk, tofu, cheese, potatoes, or even cereal for dinner, only rosewater and a bag of rye flour. But I was happy, because I’d had a pitch accepted that day.
Some people can cook and entertain with flair and still turn out astonishing books; some build careers around these combined talents. I’m not one of them. (I didn’t ask my food writer friends about their book parties. Their brilliance would annihilate me, and I’m just trying to get through launch week.) Nor am I married to one of them. Karl can read five languages and cook exactly four dishes: nachos, popcorn, surprisingly perfect stovetop rice, and… “I can make corn chowder for your book party!” He’d do it, if I asked, but I can’t fathom the logistics of serving corn chowder at a bookstore. Besides, corn’s not in season.
I can write, or I can cook: not both. For now, maybe not always, I’ve chosen to write.
The desire for radiance persists, as well as the gratitude. I’m so grateful to my friends, to the bookstore, to my series co-authors and event co-conspirators, Lydia Pyne (Bookshelf) and Kim Adrian (Sock). Among the three of us, we can, maybe, remember to buy plastic cups and salsa. Then we’ll read, we’ll answer questions, we’ll sing, badly, along with my friend’s band, The Wisterians. We’ll toast each other and our editors and publicist with the wine that our publisher donated.
At this book party, with so much else out of our control, the only thing I can do is trust in the goodwill and enthusiasm of friends and readers, in the belief that they’re satisfied with bagged chips, because they didn’t come for the food. They came for the love of us, as writers. Some of them believed in our books even before we did. Some of them always knew they’d be asking us to sign their copies. With their conviction stronger than my own, for a single evening, maybe everything will seem possible. Everything will seem right.
Emily Firetog, managing editor at Literary Hub, will moderating this event.