Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Book Club Freak

The very first book club I ever attended (aside from the L. M. Montgomery reading/writing club I formed in ninth grade) was part of a BYU married ward.

Here I was, a brand-new wife, an English major, and in a strange new place, looking forward to meeting other women and making friends. I was also looking forward to talking about books.

I knew, of course, that there would be little to no chance of anyone there wanting to analyze anything according to the Rhetorical critical theory or wax eloquent about the Neo-Classical versus Romantic eras. Thank heavens; I wasn't there for a repeat of the English major stuff I was already getting at school.

But we'd talk books, and that would be fun.

The first one we read was an oldie but a goodie: James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl.

It was one I'd read as a kid, of course. (Who hasn't read it when they were young?) But reading the story as an adult was different, and I saw new things in it.

The book club gathered in a small apartment. We cooed at the five-month-old someone brought, made small talk, and then got down to business.

The gal leading the discussion began. "So, I'd like to go around the circle and have everyone tell us their favorite part of the book."

I blinked. Favorite part? That's not really a discussion. But okay, I'll go with it. This could just be a way to break the ice and find stuff to talk about.

But no. Everyone listed a "favorite." Every favorite was so shallow that there was no chance for finding a discussion topic in them. ("I liked the ladybug best." Niiice.)

Not a single answer was interesting, let alone thought-provoking.

When my turn came, I knew I'd sound like a dork, but I went ahead with my answer. I said something like, "I thought it was neat how James changed. At the beginning, he was scared and let everyone else decide things for him. But by the end, he'd really grown up and became the leader of the group."

***crickets chirping***

I looked around at them, waiting for a response, but everyone shifted uncomfortably in their seats and avoided my gaze. No one said anything until the hostess went on. "Okay, then . . ." she said, turning to the next person in the circle.

I remember sitting there wondering if I'd accidentally gone all English major on them after all. But no, I hadn't. I didn't mention themes or symbols or deep imagery or any of the dozen critical theories I'd studied. I didn't go off on Milton or Wordsworth or Faulkner (although I've since got off on the latter right here).

Instead, I sat there trying to figure out where I was and why. These women, most of whom were also university students, apparently weren't there to talk books. I think they were there for the chatty female togetherness.

It was either that, or they were dumb as walnuts. The evening was sorely disappointing.

I've since belonged to several book clubs that (fortunately!) haven't resembled that first one in any way. There have been a variety of books, an even bigger variety of opinions, and a lot of discussion (even debate, at times) about the plot, the characters, and how they impacted the readers.

That's what a book club should be. I'd like to think that most book clubs think about things like how a character is different at the end than the beginning. That they wonder why the author made a certain choice over another. Where they find themes that speak to them. Where book club members expresses honest opinions, even if they differ, and all feel welcome doing so.

I never did make any close friends from that group. Such a mystery . . .

My only other negative book club experience was with one I didn't attend. A relative came to me asking for title suggestions for when she would be hosting her own book club.

"Oh, but we don't read anything fluffy like LDS fiction," she warned.

I smiled and just looked at her with my eyebrows raised, waiting for her to backtrack just a tiny bit, maybe say, "Not like your books, of course, but there are some fluffy LDS books out there." Or, "These ladies are really intellectual and want to discuss only really hardcore literary stuff. You understand."

But she didn't say a word. It's as if she'd forgotten that I write LDS fiction. She just waited for me to spit out some literary titles, because of course, I read a lot and probably knew a lot of good books. I gave her a few that would probably work for her group.

I doubt she realizes even to this day that she basically pulled the rug out from under me and demeaned what I do. I remind myself that she's not a reader, that she's not my target audience, and therefore her opinion shouldn't matter to me.

Other comments she's made make it clear that she doesn't get what it takes to write and write well. She's just clueless about the work I've put into it and still put into it. I can't hold ignorance against her, can I?

I also remind myself that the current LDS market isn't what it was even five years ago, and what she's hearing from other people is more about what they think the market is like than what it really is like . . . because most people who can't stand LDS fiction either haven't read any in many years or had the bad luck of picking up one of crappy ones.

The amount of crap and fluff on store shelves goes down every year (but yes, some exists always, just like in the national market). The quality has been going up fast, and I could have given her a list of really great (non-fluffy) LDS novels if she'd been willing to take them.

I've received great reviews and awards. Those opinions should matter to me, right? It's not as if hers should make any difference. But it does. It would be nice if she thought what I did was even a tiny step above fluff.

(I hope I won't regret posting this, but I'm quite sure she has no interest in my blog and will likely never see it.)


Stephanie Black said...

I do find it frustrating when a book club meeting doesn't involve much discussing of the book. Chatting is fun, but when it's 95 percent chat and 5 percent book, it's not much of a book club meeting.

Once my sister was scheduled to lead a book discussion. She had a list of discussion questions to spark discussion, but got cut off prematurely by one member who hadn't read the book yet. She didn't want spoilers. What?? You're at a book club meeting to discuss the book! If you haven't read it and don't want spoilers, for crying out loud, STAY HOME!

Sorry. Just had to vent. That really bugged me.

Julie Wright said...

oy on the two counts of psycho book clubs and non-thinking family members. I've had that happen to me by friends, at least people who SAY they are my friends. They're happy to go to dinner with me and chat literature, but heaven forbid they should be stuck reading an LDS book! They act like what I do isn't all that hard, and that they could do it any day of the week, and likely do it better. Sigh. It makes me sad.

Heffalump said...

I have never been in a book club. It's really kind of surprising since I do read a lot. I have been thinking it would be fun to do a family book club with my Mom and sisters and we could discuss some of our favorites.

Cynthia said...

I've never been in a book club group either- though I was asked the other day to join our ward group because the person who asked me thought I'd have some interesting ideas to contribute.

I hope our group isn't like your first one but I guess I'll never know unless I go.

Heidi said...

As for your first book club, I vote walnuts (as in, dumb as). Gosh, I don't know what I would say if that happened to me. I keep waiting for someone to say they hate my book or whatever but so far the haters seem to be keeping their mouths shut. That was pretty rude of that woman, but, you know, she probably DID forget. I once had someone say to me "If I were RS president, the first thing I would do is replace all the teachers!" I was one of them. She was my best friend and explained later that she totally forgot I was a RS teacher when she said that. (Yet! She became RS pres about three months later and did just what she said she would do. We aren't best friends anymore. Petty of me, I know.)

Kristina P. said...

The book club I belong to now is actually the first book club I have ever belonged to. I don't read nearly enough anymore. College sucked that out of me.

But, we do have a rule that we don't read LDS books. I didn't make that rule, as I came into a club that was started years ago. Which personally, I am OK with. I think that with this group of women, we could actually have good discussions, rather than like the one you were first in.

But, it is nice to discuss non-LDS topics as well, and actually be able to relate them to the gospel.

P.S. My post promoting your book is coming tomorrow!

Lara Neves said...

I was in a book club similar to that when I was first married. I chalk it up to the girls being super young and, yes, really just wanting a reason to socialize. I went once.

The book clubs I'm in now are much, much better, although I don't always love the book choices...but it gets me to read things I might not otherwise. And I'm not referring to LDS fiction, but I am referring to a book we recently read called The Language of the Gods. It was so scientific it made my eyes cross sometimes. But interesting, too. :)

Josi said...

Good book clubs are great, bad ones are painful. My biggest problem is that I end up talking too much. I want that deep discussion and try to hard to lead it there, usually leaving at the end of the night feeling foolish. However, the first book group I was ever a part of is largely responsible for my being published, so I know they can be a powerful thing.

Anonymous said...

Since moving here, I've tried 2 book clubs, both like your first one. It's been so disheartening, especially coming from the worlds best book club. Really, it was. Fun, funny, invigorating, interesting, intellectual (without being too intellectual or snobby). I'm trying a new book club in January. I have high hopes, but not high expectations. (weep)

I agree with the idea that your "crazy relative" hasn't read LDS fiction lately. I wasn't into the old stuff, but the newer scene is a totally different world - maybe she just isn't up with the times? (that phrase made me sound like a grandma)

Amanda D said...

I'm in a book club that I love but I am guessing that it is somewhere in the middle of yours where there are debates and the first one.

There is so much wonderful LDS fiction out there. I have read a lot that is excellent and only a couple that weren't.

Heather Moore said...

I've been in 2 book clubs and both of them have been great. (I've sort of ran them, though). Not every meeting is in-depth discussion, but we do discuss the issues, etc.

Cheryl said...

I was in the same bookclub as Julie P (although she had moved before I joined...that's a long story!) and I agree it was FABULOUS!

The book club I'm in now is fabulous. Imagine a group of women, most over 50 years old, who have been meeting every month for 20 years or more. It's wonderful! We read all kind of literature and we're not afraid of a messy story here and there. The best part is the discussion! And as someone else said? I would say those ladies in your first book club were walnuts. James and the Giant Peach? Discussing their "favorite" parts? Seriously? So sorry you experienced that pain.

And as far as a relative being rude; I can see it happening! I did it just today. Sort of. Our RS teacher asked us if any of us had felt unity and asked us to share examples --I said how unified I felt with my hubby immediately following the birth of our kids. The sweet woman nodded and I realized...DUH! She adopted both her kids. Luckily she was amazingly gracious and I don't think I offended her, but I sure felt dumb! This relative of yours seems to not realize she's being rude, though. Which almost makes it worse...

Annette Lyon said...

Stephanie, Vent away! Not being able to discuss the book (sort of the POINT of book club?) would drive me crazy too.

Heidi, Ouch. I doubt I'd be close friends with her afterward, either.

Kristina's comment got me thinking--I may have to do a poll about this--why do so many book clubs have a "no LDS fiction" rule? I can think of a couple of reasons, and one is the snob factor (people assuming it's all garbage), but there are other reasons too, I'm sure. Hmm. Interesting.

Heather, you might be on to something. RUN the book club, and it'll be great! :D

Cheryl, IMO, your RS comment isn't even almost the same thing. Your experiences are going to be different than someone else's, of course. You shouldn't have to pretend you didn't give birth just because someone else didn't. It would be different if you'd said something like, "No one can ever feel so unified without this experience." THAT would have been insulting.

As for my crazy relative--I seriously have to vote on walnuts in her case. I have a laundry list of insanely rude things she's said to me over the years--some so blatant and mean that my eyes bugged out, but she seemed blissfully unaware of anything being wrong.

So I figure she's either dumb as a walnut or deliberately cruel. (I can't think of another option.)

I hope she's a walnut, because I'd hate to think she's trying to be mean to someone she's supposed to love.

Kristina P. said...

I know I responded to your email already, but I agree that there is a snob factor with it.

I talked with my friend about it, and she said that the reason they decided against LDS books was because they wanted to get people reading other things.

They started the club in college, when they were all young as well, and she said that many of the women she went to school with read LDS books almost exclusively, and they wanted to avoid the opposite kind of snobbery. Which I think there is too.

I brought another friend into book club, and she was so excited because she didn't want to join her ward's BC where they only read LDS books, and refuse to read anything else because it may not be in direct line with the gospel.

So, I do think that the snobbery can go both ways. Incidentally, before I joined, my book club did actually end up reading the newest David O. McKay biograpy because there was some controversy surrounding it. I guess you could say my BC is a bit more liberal.

Erin said...

Dumb as walnuts. I laughed out loud!

I've never been to a book club. I've never been invited to one. Even though I read. Sheesh. Maybe I should start one.

I've seen you around. Thanks for finding me before I found you. I'm a little slow sometimes.

Alison Wonderland said...

Of course I read this post after I invite you to be a special guest at my book club. I'm sorry to say that my BC is a lot like your first one. I'd like it to be better but I'm the enrichment coordinator and it's one of my groups and none of the groups do very well so at this point I'm really just trying to get people to come. And while it's possible that dumbing it down isn't the best way to to that I do know that the bset discussion book we ever read, Screwtape Letters, had the worst attendance, one person showed up. Maybe that's a coincidence.

Annette Lyon said...

Alison, Now I'm feeling like a walnut! I've honestly never had a bad experience visiting a book club as a writer. It's always been great fun, and I'm really looking forward to yours. Discussions tend to be different animals with the author present, so the entire evening is different--but fun.

Please don't stress! :)

Jenna said...

I've been in several of those chatty gossipy female book clubs, and they always leave me disappointed! I would be in your book club any day! And I would never call you a freak.

Luisa Perkins said...

Holy cow, your book group story sounded wayyy too familiar. Been there.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Sounds like she's not smart enough to figure out how to read a blog ...

Would you hate me forever if I said I've never read "James and the Giant Peach?"

Anonymous said...

I didn't read James and the Giant Peach until a few years ago either.

I also get totally ticked off at people who snub their noses at LDS fiction. It used to be that some of the authors were sappy (and there may still be some), but there so many excellent ones now that I think it tells me more about the person making such a statement than the genre itself.

As for your relative? Don't put any credence into what she says. I think every family has just such a jerk. I'm sorry she hurt you.

Karlene said...

Ha ha. Been there. I've been in several book groups. Some good, some not so much. One was sort of RS related. It used to be fun but then they switched to reading only titles approved by the bishop. Gah!

And speaking of book clubs, Provident Book is starting two: fiction for women and fiction for teens. We'll read the book during the month, then have the author come visit at our meeting.

I'll be posting info HERE as soon as I get confirmation from the first authors. (Which hopefully will be soon.)


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