Book clubs: pride and peril for authors

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.

3 responses to “Book clubs: pride and peril for authors

  1. This situation sounds like it’s full of potential for high drama. Kevin Baker’s experience seems fairly benign (though I’m sure he didn’t feel that way at the moment) but given the right book, the right combination of readers and crazies, and a few hidden motivations, it could be a ton of fun. Scary, too.

  2. Hi Meg,
    It’s Todd here, your Canadian friend. I, by the way, am disabled. I’ve only become so in the last five years, so I have an entire life (nearly 40 years) of not being disabled that has influenced how I feel and act about my disability. I can no longer walk due to a rare bone disease, and as a result live in 24/7 pain. I only tell you the details to put into context what I’m about to say in regards to the comment you mentioned about someone saying that people simply don’t say those sorts of things to people with disabilities.

    Well, you can add me as a reference / source when I say that yes, indeed, people do say some of the most horrible and insensitive things. Sometimes through plain old ignorance, sometimes through having lived a very fortunate and charmed life to not be touched by disability or other such things, like death or disaster. Whatever their case may be, they do indeed say things like, “Oh, don’t get behind him, it’ll take forever, he’s a cripple.” Or something like, “He doesn’t ‘look’ like he needs the wheelchair, I think it’s just a scam for better parking and all the other benefits that they all get.”

    Those are just a couple that come to mind as I type this comment. It’s truly amazing what people are willing to say to your face, but it’s what they aren’t willing to say to your face that make up the worst of them. Somehow, many people seem to think that being disabled means that you are deaf as well, even if your disability isn’t being deaf.

    I admire your composure when you hear comments like these, and especially after researching through your own friends and family. It’s thing like this, and people like this, that make me want to lose it altogether. But it really is truly amazing what people think is simply made up in the author’s mind without any kind of research or forethought on the matter. It makes you wonder what these people think authors actually spend all of their time doing. You would think that there would be more educated and / or thoughtfulness put into such matters, especially when they are part of reading groups. A group of people one would assume would be more ‘clued in’ when it comes to the writing process, or at least simply by being an avid consumer of fiction novels.

    ~ todd

    • Thanks for your comment, Todd, and for your openness about dealing with people who don’t just misunderstand what it’s like to live with a disability, but seem actively, intentionally, stupid and rude. Didn’t their mamas teach them manners? (Don’t answer that.) Hearing dumb comments from readers of a novel pales in comparison.

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