Barbara Gowdy’s The White Bone is Margaret Atwood’s choice for our new Globe and Mail Book Club for subscribers. Every week, Globe Books will look at themes drawn from the novel to spark discussion among readers. This week, Russell Smith looks at the benefits and drawbacks of book clubs for readers, authors and publishers. Tell us in the Comments section about your best and worst book club moments.
Reading clubs can be odd places. Not always welcoming, especially if you are the invited author and everyone there has, willingly or not, read your book. At one of these, in a large house, I was politely but firmly told that I was not to touch the finger foods laid out on the dining-room table until after my presentation was over. This contributed to my overwhelming shame at having written a book at all.
See, whenever I am asked to come and talk to a book club that’s reading one of my books, my primary emotion is contrition. I feel so sorry for all the members who were forced into reading it by the one enthusiastic person. So very often it’s not at all their cup of tea.
They don’t hesitate to let me know that either. I have faced genuine disapprobation from book clubs. It was once explained to me by a group of military wives that a threesome scene in my novel was implausible because such things don’t really happen outside novelists’ imaginations. I could not argue the point as I was not prepared to reveal my evidence.
But so often it is said that one of the points of joining a book club is to be forced into reading outside one’s usual tastes. You simply don’t have a choice every month in what you read, and that obligation toward the unpleasant is good for you – even if you don’t like the book, having it then stored in one’s mental library is useful. Even more rewarding is the task of articulating why you didn’t like it – a task that’s not at all easy, yet key to the intellectual success of the whole evening, whose fundamental goal is conversation.
And what exactly is the goal of conversation? Self-improvement or social connection, and is there a difference?
Why does this uniquely human trait – the urgent need to talk in person about works of art we have just consumed or ideas we have just encountered – persist so in an age when instant and varied written analysis and debate is available on one’s phone? You leave the cinema and the first thing you want to know is, “Did anyone else have a problem with that ending? How could she end up with that loser?” or “Did anyone else think that scene in the hydroponic cucumber greenhouse was the most strangely beautiful they had ever seen in film?” You could read a hundred takes on the bus home, and yet instead immediately you call your wise friend and say, “I want you to see it so we can talk about it.” It’s as if a work of art that falls in forest makes no sound: It only exists when shared.
There’s always the persistent question too: Perhaps I didn’t really get it? What exactly was that book about? I don’t mean what happened in it, but was there some underlying philosophy I happened to miss?
I’m not so keen, as you can guess, on asking an author to come and explain her work to your book club. Publishers love such publicity, and eagerly send the author off to deepest suburbs with a taxi chit. Authors have every reason to be nervous on stepping into that lions’ den of hands-off-the-cookies strangers. It can feel a bit like being sent to the principal’s office.
But there is another problem with the author’s presence, and that is that the author is the last person you should ask to explain a work. The work is the inanimate object you hold in your hands: it may or may not be the concretization of all of the author’s intentions. It’s too late to go back and revise it. So the intention becomes irrelevant. No explanation of intention will make up for a lack of results in the text itself. Conversely, there may well be motifs and undercurrents in the text that occurred without the author’s consciousness, and she is unable to even see them, let alone explain them. Asking an author to explain a work’s meaning perpetuates the idea that every work has a meaning, and that it is a simple and direct one. Sometimes there is no meaning, just that sad feeling you are left with as you finish.
The more sophisticated book club conversation will discuss form as well as content, because it is the aesthetic that leaves you with that sad feeling. You need someone to guide you at some point to talk of the writing style – how deftly information is conveyed, how heavily we feel the presence of the author, what are her grammatical tics, in what lies her lightness of touch. For that conversation most people are not technically equipped, and so it is useful to have a moderator who is – a teacher, a professional writer, someone who can explain where the lustre on certain sentences comes from and why. If you have extra money left over from the finger foods, pay this person, not the author.
But it’s not necessary. The pleasure of gathering to listen to the responses and evaluations of others really comes down to one crucial moment, the moment of finding the passage you so love, pointing at it, reading it aloud and saying, “This, right?” That is the moment of both pride and exposure, and when it comes with your friends’ response – “Yes, exactly, this, right!” – it is searing, the whole point, a moment of sharing as bonding as the sharing of food.
Which, incidentally, should be available as well, before and after.