Tuesday 16 July 2019

Amanda Craig: The golden rules of running a book club? Well, don't choose Middlemarch for starters


AMANDA A website called The Middle Class Handbook has issued some dos and don’ts for book clubs, which are causing great merriment. Middlemarch is apparently to be avoided at all costs. "Attempt anything pre-1900 and over 450 pages, and your book club will shrivel up and die," it cautions.

This warning came as no surprise to me. As a novelist who sometimes gets invited to discuss my work with them, I know that book clubs are full of the most lively and perceptive people – but since they took off 10 years ago, they have also had the potential to be a focus for conflict.

Perhaps the most notorious example of this came when the novelist Rachel Cusk described her reaction to her own attempt to read with a group of women a couple of years ago. With dismay shading into contempt, she recounted the way they “attempted to decode” the kind of book that gets on to prize shortlists, but disliked those that were “heavy-going”. Her disdain was obvious, and so – according to the icy response to her article – was the relief when she left.

While I in no way share Cusk’s attitude, it’s true that there is a certain kind of person, usually female, who gravitates towards the book club. Characteristically they include the parent who has given up work to look after children, the divorcee trying to refresh her social life, the professional who feels that work has crowded out culture, the energetic retiree, and the person for whom a book club is more convivial than, say, Weight Watchers.

It’s the last you need to be especially careful of. At all costs, she must not come into contact with a novel by Joanne Harris, especially not Chocolat; Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is just as dangerous because of its matchless description of a boeuf-en-daube, and as for Toni Morrison’s Beloved, with its “turkey… new peas in September, fresh cream, ice and sugar, batter, bread pudding, raised bread, shortbread”, perish the thought.

Unfortunately, many book clubs revolve as much around sharing food and drink as sharing views. According to the survey, some clubs have even made meals that go with the book – pie with the Life of Pi, hot dogs with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and authentic Ukrainian national dishes with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. One admires their dedication, but food-themed book choices are surely doomed, creating indigestion on one hand or fierce pangs of hunger on the other.

Part of the problem for book clubs is the tendency, first identified by Flaubert in Madame Bovary, to take fiction as a guide for life. I can quite see why Middlemarch, with its portrait of two unhappy marriages, might be disastrous among readers who are contemplating divorce. In fact, the whole 19th-century emphasis on adultery can spell trouble: much easier to stick to the lesbians of Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith.

But what about the use of a novel as a springboard for debate? Groups such as that run by influential book blogger, Dovegreyreader, work because they tackle books via a theme, so nobody feels crushed when their personal taste fails to please; but some are ruined by just one show-off. A friend told me how a new member saw each choice as a competitive event, and insisted on sharing such lengthy notes that nobody else got a word in (Wolf Hall was like catnip to her). A particular bugbear became – you’ve guessed it – Victorian literature. They only got rid of her by picking the latest Michael Frayn, Skios, a farce so frothy she took umbrage and left.

Because we tend to feel that our choice of book tells others something intimate about our nature, having it disliked or rejected can feel deeply hurtful. I’ve heard clubs split acrimoniously over whether Emma Donaghue’s Room, inspired by the Josef Fritzl case, is exploitative of real-life tragedy. And more lighthearted choices can lead to revelations of an embarrassing nature, with Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman topping the list for these. One friend found her group’s discussion of its take on pubic hair and masturbation had been listened to by the visiting chairman of the school governors in the next room; she was subsequently appointed vice chair.

A great choice should stimulate, entertain, inform, move and thrill its reader on many levels, and the worst thing any book can do, in private or public, is to bore. Reading is always primarily a solitary pursuit, but being pushed to discover new authors by other enthusiasts is part of the fun. Not everyone is going to share the same taste, especially not about a work of fiction. But for a book group to be put off Middlemarch, one of the greatest and most rewarding novels in literature, just because it is long and old-fashioned is an insult to all those energetic, enthusiastic and doughty readers who keep literature alive – with or without the accompaniment of hot dogs and wine.

Amanda Craig’ s latest novel, 'Hearts and Minds’, is published by Abacus

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