5 Essential Tips on Hosting a Successful Literary Holiday Party

As the holiday party season kicks up, people will be on the hunt for themes. One we’d like to suggest, a perennial Flavorwire favorite, is the Literary Cocktail Party. Everybody likes the Literary Holiday Party in theory, because in theory it involves a lot of fun, nerdy conversations about books held over delicious cocktails. Everything sparkles: the outfits, the cocktail glasses, the conversation.

But here’s the thing: reality casts just as cruel a light on literary parties as it does on other things. Even the usual attendees of such functions in the publishing centers of the world — people Dorothy Parker used to call “literary Rotarians” — could be brought to agree that not all parties succeed just because they have a bookish character to them. So, here follow our tips, culled both from experience and from literary history.

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1. Don’t worry about decor. “Real” literary parties are not generally glamorous affairs. I have now attended a few, and can vouch for this! In general people just wander about undecorated rooms and bookstores. They wear ratty cardigans and plastic-framed glasses, and drink out of clear plastic cups. Writers cannot afford glassware, let alone coordinated glassware, and in general do not believe in clothing beyond its purely functional value. They will react the same way to a properly tended bar as they will to a table littered with bottles of Maker’s Mark and store-brand cola. So no need to stress about aesthetics.

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2. Do worry about lighting. Lighting can be everything at a literary party. Writers have sickly pallors, owing to a combination of Diet Coke and/or coffee and/or badly lit garrets. In other words: overhead fluorescent lighting is to be avoided at all costs. 

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3. Do not take writers “forgetting” about the evening personally. Writers, we tend to forget, are shut-ins, particularly in this internet-addled age. They barely know how to behave in public. Many are shy to the point of insanity. Witness, for example, David Foster Wallace, who in his friend Jonathan Franzen’s recollection had to be dragged to a New York literary party, then “as soon as we were through the front door and I took my eye off him for one second, he made a U-turn and went back to my apartment to chew tobacco and read a book.”

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4. Do serve cocktails with a literary theme. For some reason people really like to fetishize the way writers in the past drank. We know this because lists of writers’ favorite drinks are extremely, extremely popular. Unfortunately for them, most writers who drank were alcoholics, which meant that their idea of a cocktail was pouring hard liquor in a glass and maybe adding ice if some was available. Peruse the biographies of the famous writers of the past and you’ll often find them downing straight gin and whiskey, which even in this Brooklyn artisanal world is somehow not party-fancy enough.

First, everyone likes a Dorothy Parker drink, so try a gin daisy. According to her biographer, Marion Meade, in her early, light-drinking days — yes, she had them — she was a big fan.

From Gourmet:

Fill a silver mug with finely shaved ice and stir until the outside of the mug is frosted. Pour over the ice 2 teaspoons grenadine, 1/2 ounce lemon or lime juice, and 2 ounces gin.

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Hemingway was asked to contribute a drink to a celebrity cocktail guide called So Red the Nose: Or Breath in the Afternoon in the mid-1930s. His contribution was an absinthe cocktail called “Death in the Afternoon,” because the man obviously, at one point, did have a sense of humor about himself.

From Esquire:

 Pour absinthe into a champagne flute and add iced brut champagne until it clouds up — at least 4 ounces.

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Truman Capote usually referred to his favorite drink, which some would call a screwdriver, as “his orange drink.”

From The Kitchn:

Combine the fresh orange juice and vodka in a double rocks glass. Fill with ice and finish off with a splash of soda. Garnish with orange slice.


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5. That said, wild drinking is not usually advised. I do not know if the correlation between drinking and writing is really about writing at all. When I became a member of the Bar, we got a long lecture on what to do when our legal careers inevitably led us to substance abuse. But it’s the really, terribly, horribly drunk writers at parties who generate bad and embarrassing stories. Hemingway threw ashtrays and decked people. Carson McCullers once, trying to demonstrate a kind of falling trick, literally knocked herself out and had to be carried from the premises. Norman Mailer, in a famous incident, ended up stabbing his wife, an unquestionable bummer for all in attendance. You want your guests to leave your party energized by the intellectual life, not suddenly bummed by the poor simulacrum of humanity presented by the writers in attendance.

So at some point in the night, just gradually remove the hard booze from the table, and replace it with beer. After all, if there’s one thing writers also understand, it’s this: when the free liquor dwindles, it’s time to go home.