I love book clubs. I think it’s fantastic when people want to get together and discuss books. When you delve deeply into a novel — or a biography, or a history, or a collection of stories — there’s an intellectual thrill. Occasionally there are emotional epiphanies. If you’re lucky, you’ll find friends among your book club comrades.
Part of the fun in any book club meeting is to cut loose and tell everyone what you really think about a book. That’s why, for writers, attending a meeting that discusses your own book can be a nailbiting experience.
In the New York Times Sunday Book Review, author Kevin Baker tells what happened when he snuck into a book club discussion of his novel without revealing his identity. (Spoiler: the club wasn’t happy about it.)
It was an informal setting, and it just felt too pompous to pop up and exclaim, “Hello, I’m the author!” I decided to wait until we were all supposed to introduce ourselves. I’d identify myself then, quietly reveling in the murmurs of surprise and delight that were sure to follow when they discovered the great man himself was among them.
Soon someone cleared his throat, told us his name and said he was usually the club’s discussion moderator. But not tonight: “I just didn’t like this book that much, so it’s fine with me if somebody else wants to lead the discussion.”
I have never gone incognito to a book club that was discussing one of my novels. But never mind — I’ve learned that club members are almost always willing to say what they truly feel about a book directly to the author’s face.
Things I’ve heard at book clubs discussing my novels:
“This wasn’t too farfetched compared to some books we’ve read, I guess.”
“Of course I bought the paperback second hand. No way would I buy a new copy of a thriller.”
“Do we actually have to spend the whole meeting talking about the book?”
Overheard from the other room: “How could you ask an author to join us? It’s stifling.”
After a group had consumed a couple of bottles of wine: “How stupid is that Gabe Quintana character? Stupid, stupid, stupid.”
During a Q & A:
- Member: In China Lake, some characters say shocking things to Jesse Blackburn about his disability. I couldn’t believe it.
- Me: Every line of dialogue came verbatim from things disabled friends and family have had said to them.
- Member: No it didn’t. That’s ridiculous. Nobody would say awkward things to someone in a wheelchair.
At a literary festival: “You know what the problem is with this book? It’s too American. It has Americanisms on every page.”
And, regularly: “This sex scene. Well. I guess we know what you get up to.”
Now, the other 99% of the time, these book club meetings have been thrilling, fun, and deeply gratifying to me. But authors beware: nobody owes us an easy time. Gird yourselves.