In conjunction with a giveaway of a signed, first edition hardcover copy of Matrimony, author Joshua Henkin is sitting in as a guest blogger at Books on the Brain. Leave a comment on this post by May 15th for a chance to win!
These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?” My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.
I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, seven months later, I’d have participated in approximately forty book group discussions (some in person, some by phone, some on-line), with fifteen more scheduled in the months ahead. And this is while MATRIMONY is still in hardback. With the paperback due out at the end of August, my life might very well become a book group.
Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups. MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things. There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.
But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups. I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially. I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it.
I make no bones about this: I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book. But there’s a paradox here. On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY. You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher last month, is nowhere near complete. I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.
I say this without a trace of resentment. I lead a charmed life. I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it. And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.
So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes. First the good news. From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful. I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.
Speaking of passion: I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups. I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised. I’ve been trying to determine patterns. Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself!
Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions. First, where are all the men? True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do. Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes. And women join book groups and men don’t. Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting. And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.
Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following. Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters. Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The novels of Martin Amis. Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions. That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science. The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.) But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!
Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it. This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books. Eat, Pray, Love. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Water for Elephants. Kite Runner. I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read. I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about. There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers. This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the demise of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages. For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.
Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel MATRIMONY, which was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection. If you would like Josh to participate in your book group discussion, you can contact him through his website, http://www.joshuahenkin.com, or email him directly at Jhenkin at SLC dot edu.
Thanks, Josh, for a great post! Hooray for book groups!
If you are interested in winning a copy of Joshua Henkin’s 2nd novel, Matrimony, please leave a comment here by May 15th. Good luck! Lisa, Books on the Brain
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