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.
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.
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?
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.