Professor John Sutherland argues that they're about "reclaiming the right to read from pointy-headed academics". Critics insist they're nothing more than glorified dinner parties for suburban middle-class philistines. Whatever the truth, book clubs have become a ubiquitous part of modern life. You can even buy T-shirts now with the legend My Book Club Can Beat Up Your Book Club. It's no idle boast either.
Getting beaten up, intellectually at least, is an integral part of the book club experience, as evidenced by the row which erupted last month in the pages of the Irish Times after poet Mary O'Donnell wrote a sniffy piece on "the horror of book clubs", citing as Exhibit A one woman on The Tubridy Show book group who apparently said she didn't like to be disturbed by her reading material.
O'Donnell unwittingly reinforced the impression of the critics of book clubs as elitist snobs who don't want the hoi polloi storming the gates of literature. She seemed to regard it as a badge of honour for certain writers to alienate readers, and to see the breach as the fault of those readers. That is giving writers too much reverence. Personal intent ceases to matter once the book leaves their hands. The finished work has to fight its own battles.
But if nothing else, the spat brought into focus how the act of reading is deeply personal and how that intimate relationship with the words on a page is tied up with the sense of self. Part of belonging to a book club in the first place is about making a statement of the sort of person you are. That's why book clubs can be psychological minefields. Books become symbolic of personal identity, so any attack on them hurts disproportionately.
What is almost more interesting is what is happening to books themselves as the legions of book clubs take control of literature: how the needs and expectations of the book club translates into what is written and read. Publishers certainly cottoned on quickly to the commercial potential and now have whole sections on their websites devoted to promoting book clubs and offering suggestions for further reading. They have even produced How To guides to setting up reading groups, with lists of the Top 10 Cult Classics and Top 10 Gay Reads, presumably for those too lazy to go and discover books for themselves.
It all helps to sell copies, and there's nothing wrong with that. But the result arguably is a commodification of the book club, and the promotion of certain titles specifically because they appeal to a particular social demographic which has embraced the phenomenon.
New Zealand novelist Linda Olsson's debut, Astrid And Veronika, was a touching but unremarkable story of a woman escaping personal tragedy who befriends an elderly neighbour in wintry backwoods Sweden; but it was seized upon as ideal book club fodder and packaged accordingly. The paperback even came with an earnest list of Questions For Discussion: "Talk about the theme of the absent mother and how it influences these characters' lives"; "What did you think of Astrid's confession regarding the death of her child? Were you able to understand her actions?"
This can come across as a dishearteningly narrow and regimented way of discussing a work of the imagination. The suspicion is that shaping how a book can be read all too quickly becomes the only way it is read. The best books elicit multiple responses, some of them quite surprising to authors and readers alike. Here, instead, was a shutting off of the entrances and exits.
Or is that too pompous a way of looking at it? Many readers feel intimidated by books. They lack confidence when talking about them. Pointers in this way perhaps offer an opportunity to find a way into a book which might otherwise stay stubbornly closed.
Empowerment cannot be underestimated as a factor. Elizabeth Long, associate professor of sociology at Rice University, wrote a study called Women And The Uses Of Reading In Everyday Life, which traced the history of women's book clubs, traditionally dismissed by left-wing historians as an uninteresting bourgeois phenomenon. Long stressed how much these meetings had meant to women as an escape from the restrictions of domestic life, giving them a chance to stay mentally alert when other avenues of education were shut off from them, and how reading had advanced the emancipation of women by providing a space where they could discuss their concerns openly.
That the vast majority of book clubs are still dominated by women (up to 80 per cent, according to some estimates) is no coincidence. They remain important forums for female friendship and interaction. Fay Weldon's Letters To Alice On First Reading Jane Austen is a key text in understanding how women have used books as emotional maps though difficult terrain in their lives.
But there's still a suspicion that book clubs, however admirable, have led to a homogenisation of fiction, with preference given to novels which can easily be broken down into their constituent elements, allowing a blander discussion of the various "issues". Readers can breeze through, ticking off the boxes one by one. It doesn't make for better books, but it certainly makes for better book club books. And to be fair, if other, less didactic writing struggles to be noticed, it could be said that it always did anyway.
But books are meant to be the ultimate democratic weapons, and it looks increasingly as if a new literary tyranny has been institutionalised through book clubs, with writers being judged purely on how well they provide a certain group of readers with some expected emotional catharsis through recognisable and sympathetic characters and scenarios, at the expense of individual literary style and originality of structure and sheer creative cussedness. Mary O'Donnell is right about that part. The best writers write for nobody but themselves. The audience is an afterthought.
Book clubs may have given power back to the reader, but readers also ought to respect the right of writers to ultimately not give a damn what readers think. Books do not exist solely to give the audience emotional support.