At Book Club, I’m a spy. I’m the only writer in this group of a dozen women. The others are scientists, doctors, social workers, winemakers. I’ve enjoyed the company of these smart, opinionated women immensely for nearly ten years, but I’d be lying if I said the camaraderie (and the pinot and the cheese) were the only reasons I participate. You see, my membership in the group gives me a real window into the reading habits of the very audience I’m trying to capture with my own fiction, a way to conduct a living room focus group, if you will, without anyone being the wiser. I can report that, over a decade, the tastes of the group have changed dramatically, in a way that doesn’t necessarily bode well for my own emerging career.
At Book Club, I’m also the secretary. One of my annual jobs is to compile a list of recommendations for the coming year. Every member offers a couple suggestions — title, author, and a one paragraph description typically cut and pasted from Amazon. Before sending out the list, I read through it closely, excited about all the interesting possibilities. And yet, my mind gets stuck on particular phrases in the descriptions that I know, from years of experience, will likely push the book out of contention.
I’m in the heads of these ladies, imagining the silent demerits they will offer to words like “heartbreaking,” (too sad), “epic” (too long), “thought-provoking” (meh, could go either way). Any book that features the loss of a child is out, no debate. Spousal abuse, cruelty to animals, anything hinting at a conservative world-view (unless it’s written by someone who abandoned that world-view), nope, nope, and nope.
It wasn’t always this way. Ten years ago, most of us were just reaching our thirties. We’d yet to have children. We were career-focused, new transplants to our little town (brought here through our or our spouses’ jobs at the local college), and we were eager for friendship and mind-stimulation. We used to read at least a dozen books a year for the club. We read literary best-sellers by Jhumpa Lahiri and Zadie Smith. We read classics, such as the collected stories of Charlotte Perkins Gilman. We read topical nonfiction, such as Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. We had a night solely devoted to poems we loved. We read cookbooks. Once, just after Obama won his first election, we kicked off a meeting with a reading of Goodnight Bush, a parody of the classic Goodnight Moon we’d all soon enough be reading to our own children.
I vividly remember a meeting, about six years ago, when half of our small group was pregnant, myself included. We were propped uncomfortably on couches and chairs, using pillows strategically. Those who weren’t pregnant had left their infants or toddlers home with spouses. One nursed her newborn while we discussed my top pick for that year, Lorrie Moore’s bestselling story collection, Birds of America. I was the discussion leader, another relic that’s been lost.
Recommending this book was perhaps a mistake, not because I didn’t love it, but because I loved it too much, to the point of challenging anyone in the room to a knife fight lest they claim Moore was anything less than the greatest living writer. The trouble started when, one by one, members admitted they could not read the book’s show-stopper, “People Like That Are The Only People Here,” a gut-wrenching story, yet full of Moore’s characteristic wit and humor, despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that the setting is a pediatric cancer ward.
“Does this kid die?” someone asked. A roomful of frightened eyes asked me the same question. My arms were crossed over my expanding belly. I knew that Moore’s story, though billed as fiction, was largely autobiographical. I knew, from some interview or another, that Moore’s son was alive and well. I urged people to go back to the story, said they’d be glad they did, but I’m not sure that anyone did so.
A similar thing happened when we picked Emma Donaghue’s Room. Thankfully, during the meeting to pick that year’s books, someone was there who had already read Room and could assure everyone that the boy and his mother do escape from their captor and survive. Without that member’s impassioned plea, it would not have been chosen, despite its stellar reviews. I worry about what our picks say about us, myself included. Although I might read more widely due to my profession as a writer, I, too, have found myself on many nights, once the children are finally asleep, the dishes washed, reaching for a decorating magazine by the side of my bed rather than the stack of National Book Award nominees. As I’m currently battling insomnia, my doctor warned me against reading anything too “heavy” right before sleep. And so, the books must wait until I have a swath of time during the day when I can absorb myself in something more challenging. But with two young children, that just isn’t going to happen.
Is that a lame excuse? Have I, and our other club members, become lazy? Complacent? Has motherhood made us incapable of putting literary tragedy in its proper perspective? Or are we just…tired? Are we victims of the mentality that says we must do it all or die trying? (Books on this topic will almost always get the nod.) Is it so wrong to simply want to zone out with a magazine, or a Will Ferrell movie, instead of the latest Oscar nominee for Best Picture?
This year, we will pick only five books. It was a decision made last year when the club was on life support. Attendance had dwindled to nothing, and something had to be done. We threw all the former rules aside. Can’t make most of the meetings? That’s okay! Come whenever! Come to the meeting, even if you haven’t read the book! Bring a friend, who also hasn’t read the book! We now have two purely social meetings each year, one a potluck that includes our families. The other five meetings feature discussion of a brief magazine article of interest to the group, usually something from The New Yorker or The Atlantic, which can be read over lunch the day of the meeting.
Though membership has changed, the Book Club has been with me since I started writing my debut novel five years ago. I’m finally done and showing it to agents, but will I show it to club members? I’m not so sure I can just yet. I worry about their reaction. Though there is humor and lightheartedness scattered throughout, my book is about serious themes, a controversial mix of religion and politics and science, all the things one is not supposed to talk about in polite company. If I anonymously offered a description of it in the list of recommendations, would it get chosen? I’m afraid I know the answer to that question, and it makes my eye start to twitch.
In any case, we’ve gravitated from novels to mostly non-fiction, titles that impact our lives directly, such as books examining child-rearing, work/life balance, or books that show us the science of our decision making. If they’re going to take the time to read them, members want books they can use. I read the list of recommendations again before sending it to the group. “Hilarious,” (check) “Unputdownable,” (this is a word now? check) “Eye-opening” (could go either way). I look over the books I’d personally like to read, even when they inevitably don’t get chosen. These are books that might make me sad, but that I think ultimately will give me an understanding of what it means to be human. These books will be my non-required reading, should I be ambitious enough at the end of a long day to put down the decorating magazines.
And so the voting begins. I feel bad for the excellent authors who won’t make our list. Laugh, I want to tell them, and the Book Club laughs with you. Cry, and you cry alone.
Image: Sean M. Freese/Flickr