When You Bomb at the Book Club

From The Wall Street Journal:

Bronwen Fitzsimons felt a lot of pressure making her first selection for the small book club of smart and well-read Brooklyn, N.Y., women she’d been asked to join. It was last summer, so looking for something light, she selected Liane Moriarty’s best-selling “Big Little Lies.” Ms. Fitzsimons cringed a bit as she read it herself, she says, realizing the page-turner about privileged Australian mothers might not meet their literary standards. She was right.

“It was a giant flop,” says Ms. Fitzsimons, a grants manager at the Rockefeller Foundation. “Everyone just rolled their eyes and then we just moved on to brunching.”

The ideal book club experience usually involves getting together with friends each month to enjoy a glass of wine and lively conversation, while feeling satisfied that you read a book that stretched the imagination or intellect.

Even with the best of intentions, readers sometimes make unpopular selections. The result: awkward conversations and accusations of bad taste. Selecting the wrong book feels like you’ve wasted your friends’ time. Something that’s supposed to be relaxing becomes a chore for those who hate the book. In the worst-case scenario, the entire club could be in jeopardy.

. . . .

Author Gretchen Rubin is a member of four New York City-based book clubs. She suggests monthly reads for 65,000 subscribers to her online “book club.” But the selection of Sylvia Engdahl’s futuristic 1970s novel “This Star Shall Abide” for her personal children’s literature book club baffled fellow members.

“They didn’t like the writing, they didn’t like the twist,” Ms. Rubin says.

. . . .

Even long-running book clubs can run into unfortunate selections, like that made by fifth-grade teacher Libby Ester’s more than 30-year-old book club, based outside Chicago. Wanting to expand their cultural horizons, last fall they agreed to read Hungarian author Magda Szabó’s “The Door,” first published in the U.S. in the 1980s but reissued to great acclaim in 2015.

The group meets at a different member’s home every six weeks or so. That night the host had even prepared Hungarian chicken paprikash for dinner. While the food was great, Ms. Ester says, everyone but the host disliked the book. “We all felt that the [narrator] was too self-centered and the writing was sort of clunky.” Her fellow members were “thumbing through the book, tapping their fingers on the page—‘See there! She’s doing it again, talking about herself one more time.’ ” The host, meanwhile, “would just occasionally pipe in with, ‘I kind of enjoyed it.’ ”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (Link may expire)

PG notes that all three books have quite positive reviews on Amazon.

14 thoughts on “When You Bomb at the Book Club”

  1. Why can’t they propose more than one book? Have a “I liked it” choice as well as a “everybody ought to read this” choice…

    AlWhoIsn’tABookClubMember

    • I’m in a book club where we are all in our late 20’s/early 30’s. We have members propose their choices and give a brief rundown regarding what they are about. Someone else seconds a proposed book, and then we vote on which of the options we want (usually between 3-5). If our book choice bombs, then several people are at fault.

  2. Can we only discuss books we liked?
    It seems weird to expect you are going to like all the books you choose.
    Now if you hate all the books you choose, then you have a problem.

    • That’s what I was wondering. In book circles I’ve been in we had the rule that you did not comment on the book nominator, you did not attack the book author, but the book was fair game.

      We didn’t always all like the books. Those were some of the most entertaining and engaging discussions. If you were wounded by someone not liking the same things as you… well, we weren’t the group for you.

    • Not necessarily. I don’t know about you, but I usually put a book down if I’m not into it… I have too much to do that I don’t want to waste my time trying to slog through something that I’m just not interested in. If I were to feel socially pressured to do said slogging, I am sure that I would be even more vocal in my distaste.

  3. So sorry, but I’m too introverted, too self-centered, too busy, and too uninterested in joining any book club and discussing books. The Internet — and especially TPV — satisfies my desire to interact with others about books (and publishing) in a meaningful way. And without leaving home.

    I just don’t get the attraction of book clubs… Except for the food served! 🙂 And the conflicts of internal book club politics just makes me roll my eyes.

    Include me out!

  4. In our club, we love to hate an occasional selection. Everyone gets to drain their snark glands and display the razor hidden in their velvet tongue, which is much more fun than being awed by the wonder of it all.

  5. I know I’m a dinosaur, but I’ve never seen the attraction of a book club. Why be forced to read something I didn’t choose? I had enough of that doing English Lit in high school.
    Reading is a solitary pleasure. Why do so many people insist on turning it into a chore?

  6. This is very timely for me. After getting burned for choosing The Pearl That Broke its Shell by an older member of my club who disliked the violence of a story about the treatment of women in Afghanistan, I decided to embark upon a polite quest to make that book club more like my other (read better) one. Fail. No, we do not want to spend the time reading short synopses of books and then voting for a year at a time. We want you to recommend a book, preferably one that does not upset us too much, that you have already read and about which you will lecture us and then we will see if we are happy we took your advice. Or, we don’t like being told what to do because we have always done it this way and we don’t like change. I wanted three things: to make book choices anonymous so no one would be able to prejudge or attack the chooser (just two of us would know); to have a vote for the year so we could plan and base the votes on synopses and reviews, not passing around a book at a meeting not everyone could attend; and to get ALL the ladies to RSVP because, hello, hostesses need to know. In order to avoid the lecture quality, I suggested passing cut up book club questions in a basket for each to read to facilitate participation of all and take the spotlight away from the poor person who may have chosen the book someone or all someones hated. But no one wanted to do it this way so when I did, duh, I outed myself. Had to lead the discussion anyway. One lady said she had not read the book so would not read the question out loud! There does NOT have to be a discussion leader. I see a book club as a shared experience of reading a book none of us have read. Then no one is to blame and no one is thereby hurt or angered or expected to do extra work. The majority chooses and well, if no one has anything to say, you drink wine and go home.

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