When the Book Club Goes Boom—Er, Fizzle

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I was a member of a book club once. It was a glorious five minutes.

I live in a very small village that’s best described as pretty much entirely unlike the idyllic Stars Hollow from Gilmore Girls. It’s the Upside Down of Stars Hollow, in fact. No quirky neighbors, not many cute shops, very few fun events. Knitathon for charity? Newp. Picnic basket auction? Nuh-uh. (And don’t even get me started on the sad lack of hunky Luke types.)

Needless to say, when a friend invited me to join a book club, I exclaimed, “There’s a book club?!” and said yes without hesitation. What a rush—a circle of educated, intelligent women spanning the ages of late-thirtysomething through seventysomething, all eager to discuss literature instead of, well, one another/their friends/their relatives/their neighbors—all of those categories overlap, by the way—which is pretty much the official village sport.

We took turns selecting a book for the group to read each month, somberly scouring bestseller lists and reviews to find an intriguing story. Instead of devolving into a drinking club, we tried our best to actually discuss the books (although there was a bit of alcohol). The ladies were thoughtful and courteous, and I found my soul being fed with high-minded discourse for the first time in ages. It was heaven.

And then two things happened, and the book club imploded with the force of…well, no. It went quietly, I must admit. But it definitely went. To this day, though, I don’t know which of the two things killed it.

Thing 1: A woman—let’s call her Dolores—rejoined the club after having been out of it for a while. I didn’t know her, but she seemed nice. Opinionated, but nice. Actually…er…very opinionated. And, um, kind of abrasive, to be honest. Dolores was very smart, and even though her opinions were not quite popular, mainly because of her delivery, she added an edge to the group that (I thought, at least) made it more exciting and challenging.

Thing 2: When it was my turn to choose the next book, I picked one given to me by my publisher for a round-robin of blurbs—I wrote one for this book, another author wrote one for mine, etc. It was women’s fiction, family/sister-oriented, dramatic but also funny and lighthearted in places, with an uplifting ending. I had enjoyed the story, and I thought my book club would, too.

Nope.

Now that I think about it, maybe it was the collision of both of these things that did in the book club. While everyone went off to read the book, apparently fine with the selection, Dolores surfaced a day or two later on Facebook, vaguebooking about it. “I hate chick lit!” she sniped. She didn’t actually name the book, but she was obviously talking about the one I’d chosen. She made it quite clear that this “chick lit” was beneath her, a personal affront to her massive IQ.

Don't do it, Marge!

Don’t do it, Marge!

At the next book club meeting—tension? what tension?—everyone who was not me or Dolores was carefully polite about the book. Dolores made a face. So I turned to her with a genuine smile, because I love a good debate, and said, “Go ahead, let it out. You’ve been quite clear about how you feel about the book, so go on. I can take it.”

Because I can take it. Of course I can. I have to be able to. Any romance or chick lit writer encounters this reaction on the regular. We get snickered at, sneered at, discounted, brushed off, and patted on the head like cross-eyed brain-damaged rejects in the corner cage at the pound. We don’t like it, but we’re used to it.

While every type of art has its detractors, I’d say chick lit and romance books have more than their fair share; of course, this is coming from a person who’s exhausted from constantly deflecting all the slings and arrows, so maybe it just feels like more than most. In any case, I am always prepared to defend my genre of choice.

Let’s take a step back for a second, so I can point out a couple of things. First of all, this book wasn’t even chick lit. Not by a long shot. It was straight-up women’s fiction. Yet Dolores considered it chick lit—why? because it featured several women and a love interest for the main character? because it had humor?—and reacted to it as though I had tossed hemlock in her chardonnay and ordered her to drink it down while I held a gun to her head.

Which brings me to the second thing: So what if it had been chick lit? Why would that be repulsive? What’s wrong with humor, a bit of romance, and a happy ending? Why does that elicit such a visceral negative reaction, as though a reader should never be allowed to laugh or well up with happy tears? Are they afraid they’ll be punished? Or have their “legit serious reader” card taken away? I don’t know the answer.

But back to the book club meeting. When we last left our little group, I had just invited Dolores to voice her opinion on what, exactly, she didn’t like about this book.

I waited patiently. Dolores stuttered. Dolores stammered. Dolores demurred. Seeing she was at a loss for words for the first time since I’d met her, I tried to help her out. Was it the humor, I asked? Was it the happy ending? Was it the presence of several sister characters and how they bonded? Was it the presence of a love interest, even though the romance plotline wasn’t even the B story—more like the C story? Was it the book’s less-than-anguished tone (constant anguish apparently being the hallmark of a “good” book club choice)? She never really answered. I wasn’t surprised.

I defended the book. I pointed out the good elements, and I didn’t shy away from acknowledging the weaker points. I worked my way through the list of discussion questions I had carefully compiled. The other members of the club seemed afraid to answer, and we never really got a good discussion going.

All in all, it was a horrible, horrible meeting, and none of us could get out of there fast enough.

That was the last meeting of the book club. Dolores dropped out. Others cited various pressing responsibilities and backed out as well, and suddenly the book club was no more. That was the last I heard about it, anyway. Who knows? Maybe they secretly regrouped, meeting in a cavern by candlelight, hiding from the less-desirable elements who almost hotly debated a book. I doubt I’ll ever find out, just as I’ll never find out whether it was Dolores’ abrasiveness or my daring to choose a slightly happy book, or the combination of both, that killed it.

Was I sad it ended that way? Of course. Did I feel guilty that I may have contributed to its demise? More than I can express. Am I sorry I defended my genre?

Never.

But if anybody hears of a knitathon charity event, give me a shout. I don’t know how to knit, but even with those huge needles flying around, I’m figuring it’s got to be safer than a book club.

Thanks for reading! Return to the FICTION WRITERS BLOG HOP on Julie Valerie’s website for more great blog hop entries!

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18 responses »

  1. Oh don’t you ever feel guilty about your choice of book! The whole point of books to express the whole gamut of human emotion and experience – happy endings, sad endings, funny and light, deep and serious and everything in between. I know people like Delores. There’s one in my circle who is such a literary snob it is ridiculous.
    I pity those people. All their snobbery proves is that they are closed minded. And who wants to hang out with closed minded idiots?

    • Right? Limiting the selections to only “LIT-tra-choor” really hinders the reading experience, I think. Even now, I can’t help but wonder if the other ladies also didn’t like the book, or if they did and were just afraid to say so in the face of the literary snob. Again, I will never know.

  2. Ha! Loved this! In our group, it works the other way around. She Who Shall Not Be Named always jumps on a pick if it is the slightest bit sad or has any tragedy whatsoever. “There is enough tragedy in the world without having to read about it!” as if you can learn nothing from empathy or others’ experiences. She refuses to even read it after scanning the blurb on the back of the book. Reading your post, maybe I am recognizing the signs that our group is quietly circling the drain, too. Yikes.

    • Oh wow, that’s strange. I mean, I write romcoms because I’d rather make people laugh than cry, but that’s just my personal choice. I’d never actually tell anyone they should only read happy things. People take comfort in reading sad stories as well. I sincerely hope your book club isn’t falling apart, Bonnie! Whatever you do, don’t let She Who Shall Not Be Named call all the shots!

  3. Jayne, this made me so sad, on so many levels. Yes, chick lit and romance gets an unfair rap. But books are like any other form of art: not all of us will like the same thing. O’Keefe versus Constable, Beethoven versus Presley. They’re just different. I’m so sorry Dolores couldn’t simply say, “this isn’t for me” – although, like you, I feel in any book there are interesting features. It sounds like she felt threatened on some deeper level by what reading a single book might project about her to others. What a pity. But hey, I bet knitting can get contentious, too.

    • Exactly, Pauline—everyone is free to like (and dislike) different things, but why the fear-driven response? I think that says more about Dolores’ personal makeup than the book I asked her to read. LOL if I recall correctly, she does knit—I wonder how she approaches that too! 😀

  4. Ahhh, great post! Why is it so difficult to gather a group of fairly like minds (or even disparate, makes for a good discussion) and discuss a book? Personally, my limited participation in book clubs and their demise after several meetings, is that the members never “have the time” to actually read the book, but they like the idea of getting together. I’ll keep on the lookout for a knitathon as well. 🙂

    • I had no idea maintaining a book club was that complicated, Nancy! It’s sort of comforting to know that so many other book clubs fold quickly—that it wasn’t just the one I belonged to—but I do wish it were easier to keep them going. They’re really a great outlet for sharing ideas…when they work, that is.

  5. Jayne, I don’t think the demise of the book club had anything to do with you. Did Dolores know it was your book? Even if she did, it was her responsibility to say what she thought. Also your responsibility to ask the tough questions to her. I don’t know, but it wasn’t you!

    Deb

    >

    • Oh Deb, it wasn’t even my book! One of my friends said the book club should read one of mine, and I was all “NO WAY” because I didn’t want the members to feel like they had to pussyfoot around me if they didn’t like it. This was by another author with my publisher; I just chose it. Imagine if Dolores had been forced to read one of my books, which are actual comedies. Her head would have exploded!

    • Hahahaa I don’t know my own strength! o_O Honestly, I felt SOOOO bad for the longest time, thinking that I had been invited to a book club and I had shown my appreciation by blowing it all to hell. Yeah, now I’m getting to the point where I can laugh about it. Maybe I’ll be able to fictionalize it soon! 😉

  6. It sounds like there was a perfect storm of conditions that would capsize any book club! I agree, though–“strong” (euphemism) or “overbearing” (truth!) members can do a LOT to make members lose interest.

    • There was, Laurie. But, since I was a naif, it took me by surprise. I thought all book clubs endured more hardship than that. Live and learn…and hope for another in the future!

  7. Jayne, you always have the most entertaining posts! Every few months I try to plan a girls’ night at my house, where we just play games, drink and socialize. I was starting to get inspired by the thought of organizing a book club instead, but after reading this post, maybe not something I want to attempt. Haha! Sorry your book club fizzled out, and in such an uncomfortable way!

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