I wrote this piece about book clubs for Bookreporter.com and they have kindly allowed me to post it here too. I highly recommend this website for information on books, book clubs, writers, and amusing publishing news. Check it out! And in the meantime, enjoy my trip down memory lane.
When I was a kid – oh, about forty years ago, and how scary is that? – my mom and step-father used to drag me along to their monthly “discussion group.” It was a book club made up of couples – all graduate students. My step-father would complain all the way to whoever’s house we were going and all the way back about how so-and-so was a jackass or how the book selection was “moronic.” My mom complained she never was as sleepy as she was at those meetings, digging her nails into her palms to stay awake when everyone was trying to prove that he or she was the smartest person in the room. I lingered on the edges, listening, and watching as everyone – as my mother has put it – “tried to fake their way into the adult community.” This was the Sixties, so people had things like giant looms in the living room and homemade macramé for curtains. We’d eat a potluck of tuna casseroles, hotdogs and beans, and other dishes that graduate students could afford to make. As the decade wore on, the members of the group became far less interested in discussing books like than smoking pot, drinking too much tequila, and committing adultery. Fun for all!
Jump ahead to 1995 when my first book, On Gold Mountain, came out. I was invited to talk to my first book club, which was comprised of parents from my son’s elementary school class. (Let me say right here then I hadn’t known this book club existed, because my husband and I hadn’t been invited. Not that I hold a grudge or anything.) The women wanted to talk about the book, the characters, and the underlying themes. But the men had something else on their minds altogether: “How much money do you make?” “How did you get an agent?” “How does your husband feel about you shilling yourself?” “Did your editor help you write the book?” “Who takes care of Alexander when you’re writing?” Yikes!
All I can say is thank God for Oprah. She single handedly changed the dynamic of the book club. Overnight men decided – for the most part – to stay home. I can’t say how many book clubs I’ve visited in person in the last thirteen years, but it has to be in the hundreds. These last three years, I’ve limited myself to visiting two book clubs a week by speaker phone. By now, I think I’ve spoken to book clubs in nearly every state, as well as in several countries. Boy oh boy, have they changed!
I’ve visited book clubs made up of women who were either pregnant or had children under the age of two, who only wanted to talk about the pregnancies and births in Peony in Love. I’ve talked to numerous book clubs with just mothers and daughters, and a few with granddaughters too.
I’ve seen a growth in book clubs with specialized membership: hospice-care worker, church, country club, retirement, Jewish, Mormon, lesbian, and sailing – all of them women-only book clubs. Even the one that started in my son’s class sent the men home. When I visited for Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the ambiance had changed completely: better food, better wine, better discussion, more tears, and far more laughs.
This isn’t to say that women in book clubs these days don’t still drink or do some of that other stuff that I remember from my childhood. Alcohol seems to play a major role in a lot of book clubs. I spoke to one book club that called itself The Winos. Another had an ongoing contest to see who could make the best margaritas. And of course how can women gather together and not eat? On the down side, there are still those occasional know-it-alls who try to monopolize the discussion.
The single biggest change I’ve seen and the one I love most – and maybe this will sound funny coming from a writer – is that the book is usually secondary to the experience of women talking to each other. Often women tell me that they spend about twenty minutes talking about the book and the rest of the meeting talking about life. I understand that. We’re all so busy, yet we all desire companionship and a place to let down our hair. When and where else do we get to be with other women to boast, complain, commiserate, and laugh at silly stuff? I may be popping in to talk about my books, but what we’re really talking about is life. I feel very privileged to get to be a part of those conversations.