TSS: Some Thoughts on Book Clubs

sunsalon1I just finished reading Kathryn Stockett’s The Help for my book club in June. We were originally supposed to read Meg Rosoff’s award-winning How I Live Now, but one of our book club members read the book early and hated it, and went on at length at our last meeting about how vile it was and also how Rosoff had gotten everything wrong about England (said book club member is Welsh; I pointed out to her—and to everyone—that Rosoff has lived in England for the last 20 years, so I doubt she is completely unfamiliar with it). After she went on at length about how much she disliked the book, we almost had no choice but to pick a new one, and even though I relented it made me angry. First, nobody else in the book club got a chance to read Rosoff’s book, so no one could offer up an opposing or different view. We were simply to take her word for it that it was a terrible book. Second, it seems to me that a book that causes someone to form such a strong opinion is exactly the kind of book that is right for a book club, because you have something to discuss. I don’t think every choice should be controversial, and I hate to think anyone feels marginalized by the selections time and again, but I also think it was unfair of this member to hijack everything before we could read it and have a fair discussion.

This seems to be a struggle we have over and over again in our book club. Most of the women only want to recommend something popular or something that they have already read and think of as a safe choice. While I certainly understand not wanting to waste time on a book I am not enjoying, I also joined a book club so that I could get a broader view of things, and so I could have discussions about books. When everyone simply nods and agrees that the book was lovely, that tends to be the end of the discussion. So what, then, is the point of a book club? Why not a supper club?

And I hate to admit, but I wonder: Do mixed (male and female) book clubs have the same issues? Is it book clubs in general? Is it simply the mix of personalities in the group? For the most part, I enjoy getting together with these women every month. We are all very different, but the only real point of tension we have is book selection…not a good thing for a book club.

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11 comments

  1. It is *not* a terrible book! It’s also not particularly controversial, I don’t think, so I wonder why she reacted that strongly? Anyway…I’d have been been angry too if I were you. I’ve never belonged to a book club, and so I can’t really answer those questions. But I’m inclined to think that individual personalities would be the reason for those tensions.

  2. Priscilla, I would be really disappointed and frustrated too. I think you’re spot on in saying that a book that causes that kind of a reaction is probably one that would make for a really lively and spirited meeting, and is exactly the kind of book you do want to read for a book club. I’ve always found that the books we haven’t necessarily liked at my book club are the ones that prompt the best discussions, because people really try to articulate what didn’t work for them. When we all like the book, I feel like discussion falls flat. Plus, I’d just be angry that one person would hijack the club and prevent everyone else from reading the book. I mean, if she doesn’t want to attend the meeting for the book because the book makes her THAT angry, that’s her prerogative, but she should limit everyone else.

  3. I have never been part of a book club. It seems to me that allowing one person to dominate a group like that is not particularly productive. Perhaps that person could sit out one month or be asked to be gracious enough to allow the other members to read and speak about the book they dislike without interrupting the discussion. Probably to much to ask, I know. Can’t wait to hear what you think of The Help!

  4. I am the only male member of my book club, possibly the only male member of any book club. Are there mixed book clubs? I’ve never heard of one.

    We have this problem now and then. We now take turns selecting books and usually pick ones none of us have read. If one person has already read it, even if they loved it we usually pick something else.

    You have to remember that it’s not personal. You can hate my book choice and still be my friend.

    This can be very hard to remember.

  5. I don’t have a real life book club, but am reading along with some other book bloggers and we all ruled out anything that even one has read. So I guess it’s fair for that member of your book club that you didn’t read the book. Still, it would’ve been better if she had just given that (having read it) as the reason for you not to read it as a group, instead of trashing the book.

  6. I’ve never belonged to a book club, but several of my friends do, and they’ve indicated that most of the disagreements arise around choice of book.

    It does seem unfair that one person can unilaterlly “unchoose” a book for the rest of you. As you said, occasionally dissension makes for a more interesting discussion.

  7. Nymeth, although she gave several reasons (the things she thought Rosoff had got wrong about England, for example), I am still not sure why she was so incensed. It is perfectly within her rights not to like the book for whatever reason, I suppose. What upset me was that it was someone else’s choice, and she basically vetoed it before anyone else got there.

    Steph, the sad irony is that the book club for that book would have been at that member’s house. Still, I agree with you that books we dislike can generate a really interesting discussion. I have one other British woman in my book club besides the lady who disliked the book, and two who have lived there, so it would have been interesting to hear their point of view at least regarding those objections.

    Gavin, I’ll be posting my thoughts on The Help this week. As far as book club, I also do not think it productive to let any one person dominate. I think it’s too bad that she couldn’t just wait until the appointed time to share her feelings. By no means do I think she is required to like the book–I just think she should be required to wait and share said feelings!

    C.B., I agree completely. This was not my book choice, but even if it was I would not take it personally if she didn’t like it–as long as she said so at the book club, after everyone had read the book. As a matter of fact, the book club tends to roll their eyes at every choice I make, so hurt feelings rarely come into it for me anymore. I am angry about discussion essentially being closed down, though. I just don’t think that is right. She read the book because we selected at our June read–she didn’t just read it and dislike it on her own.

    Claire, she had not read the book before we picked it as our June book–she was simply reading our June pick ahead of time because it was available at the library. If she had read it beforehand and said she didn’t like it when we were picking the book, that would have been a different story altogether. I personally advocate picking books none of us have read. The main problem in my book club is that people ONLY want to pick books they have read, so they are “safe” from complaints.

    Becca, it’s the “unchoosing” that really gets to me. I have been in this book club for almost seven years, and whenever something like this happens it almost makes me want to stop. The trouble is, outside the book-choosing controversies that arise, I enjoy the women in the group, so I keep on…

  8. I’ve belonged to several book clubs over the year and for some reason the ones that I liked most were the ones where we had a good mix of men, women, and different ages. It’s funny but usually the best book club discussions are the ones where we didn’t all necessarily love the book.

    Sorry that member had to ruin the one book for everyone. I agree, I don’t think that was fair. Maybe you can suggest reading it for another month again?

  9. Ugh. My own book club never had anything quite like that happen, although we did have one member who tended to dominate, she (mostly) didn’t try to get us to unchoose books we’d already selected. Actually, she tried it twice and succeeded once, because the rest of us weren’t very interested in the book anyway, but she failed the second time because we didn’t like changing plans once they’d been made. After that, I don’t think she tried again, even though she did read all the selected books way in advance.

    We also discovered different philosophies among our members when making choices. The domineering person I mentioned above also liked to read books before recommending them to the group, so she wouldn’t be recommending a dud, ie, a book with not much worth discussing. The rest of us preferred not to have read the book before suggesting it, mostly because that way we could let ourselves off the hook if it wasn’t a success 🙂 We didn’t have strict rules over whether books could be ruled out because others had read them, although we did usually allow people to veto books they had no interest in reading. That worked pretty well because we were all generally willing to try anything and only used our vetoes on particularly hated authors or topics or genres.

  10. I think it’s just endemic to book clubs. There are always going to be people who behave that way. There’s one in my club too, and I don’t think it’s because it’s all women. I’m in a religious club and it’s like x100 there because people get so emotional about religion and God help you if you want to read a book that doesn’t portray that person’s religion the way they happen to practice it. My club has encountered this problem again and again.

  11. Iliana, I agree that the best discussions seem to happen when we have different views about the book. That book was not my choice–another member had selected it–so I would leave it up to her if she wanted to suggest it again. I plan to read it on my own, either way.

    Teresa, I am generally not bothered by a book being vetoed when we’re trying to decide what to read. After all, I, as much as the next person, know there are books I have no interest in at all. And if the book were simply a dud, and she had said it was just boring, not much plot or much to talk about, then perhaps it wouldn’t have irked me so much. I think it was just the force of her dislike for the book that threw me.

    Marie, I admire you for even being a part of a religious book club. I can imagine how very difficult that could get at times. As for the members, I suppose it is a personality thing more than a male/female thing. The truth is, bullies are bullies.

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