Guest Blogger: Author Joshua Henkin Talks about Book Groups

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,, 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


57 Responses

  1. I hadn’t heard of Joshua Henkin before but this was a great post! I completely agree with him on the points he brings up about book group discussions. I’m a big fan of unlikeable but strong, memorable characters, and really dislike those tacked on happy endings. Give me a sad, thoughful ending any day.
    I’d love to be entered to win a copy of his latest book, but regardless I’m putting it on my wishlist. Thanks.

  2. Sign me up! I’m very interested. I am always intrigued by books that have lively discussion. I enjoyed this post and the advice to not always need the happy ending and to read a few ‘unknowns’.

  3. I’m interested, too. The book sounds great!

  4. Very cool! I’m all for books without a cheesy, tacked on happy ending. Count me in!

  5. I would love to win this! Thanks!

  6. I would love to read this book. Very cool.

  7. What a great post, I enjoyed it thoroughly. I love the idea of not choosing books that more than half of the members have heard of. If only I could get my club to abide by that rule. Not only have I heard of most (all?) of the books we read, I’ve already read a lot of them.

  8. Count me in for this one Lisa! I agree with Tara. Maybe there should be a “books you’ve never heard of” group!

  9. I am interested as well. Please enter me into the drawing. I also agree with his point about selecting books that are unknown for book club discussion.

  10. We just hit our first anniversary last week! I would love to win this book!

  11. Wow, what a great post! I loved Henkin’s take on books for book groups towards the end–great rule.

    Please sign me up to be in the running to win a free copy of Matrimony

  12. The book & author sounds interesting. Please sign me up for the contest. Thanks.

  13. Matrimony is already on my list–my sister-in-law recommended it, and that’s high praise, let me tell you! I’d love a chance to win, so count me in! And thanks for the lovely “guest post”, that was fun!

  14. Joshua-Thanks for sharing your honest insights about book clubs and the world of book marketing. This is a whole new field for anyone who has not published yet.

    Sign me on to win a copy of your book. Thanks.

  15. Wow, he’s got me intrigued! I’d love to read this book. Please enter me for the draw. Thank you so much for the chance 🙂

  16. Hi, everyone. Thanks for the great responses. Keep ’em coming. And let me know if you’d like me to participate with your book group in a discussion of MATRIMONY. I’d be delighted to. –Josh

  17. Well Josh… Matrimony is one of the books we will be voting for over at Planet Books for our May/June title. Lisa… Please put my name in the basket for a copy of Matrimony! Thanks!

  18. After reading a review of Matrimony I am going to submit it for vote at my club…regardless I want to read it and a signed copy would be a nice touch. Please add my name to the drawing for the book.

  19. I have been wanting to read this book! Do count me in!

  20. sounds like a fantastic book! will have to check it out at my local library!

  21. Wow, Joshua Henkin is new to me too, but his book sounds really interesting and a book club with a real live author sounds amazing! I’ve always wanted to do that, but have never had the courage to ask. Plus, my girls are a little unpredictable when it comes to reading the book. There are very few months where they’ve all read it … but maybe if I told them the author was coming they’d get inspired (or maybe they’d feel like they were back in school and waiting for the teacher to call on them). Ha!

    Um, and YES, I’d love to win a copy of this book. It sounds amazing!

  22. I’ve had this book on my TBR list for a while – and after reading his comments, I’m moving it closer to the top of the list!

  23. Please enter my in the giveaway contest. This book sounds very interesting. Thanks!

  24. What a wonderful feature for your blog. I absolutely love it and it makes me want to check out the author’s book.

  25. […] it! innerarchitect on AboutLiterate Housewife on Guest Blogger: Author Joshua H…Mary Lewis on AboutErin on Guest Blogger: Author Joshua H…Erin on Looking […]

  26. Josh, I would enjoying reading your book. Thanks for the chance to learn more about it and for the chance to win.

    Lisa, sorry I haven’t been around as much lately.

  27. What a great sounding book! I am getting tired of reading the “happy ending” books myself. I am looking for something with some “meat” to it. I would love to win this book!

  28. I would love to be entered into this giveaway, thank you. 🙂

  29. […] it! Guest Post: In Prais… on Guest Post: In Praise of Book…Amy on Guest Blogger: Author Joshua H…Amy on Jill Smolinski, Author Intervi…bkclubcare on Review: Last Night at the […]

  30. […] win a copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin, click HERE by May 15th.  Josh would be happy to do an author chat with your book […]

  31. Josh, thanks for a great post! Makes me wish there were more readily available books and bookclubs in the part of the world where I live (somewhere out on the edge of Europe where it meets the Middle-East – in Armenia to be precise).

    Lisa, if you are okay with sending the book oversea in case I win, please do enter me in the contest. I had heard of Matrimony before and what I read got me interested, but Josh’ post got me even more interested. I’d love to read Matrimony.

  32. […] a chance to win a copy of Matrimony, see author Josh Henkin’s guest post HERE and leave a comment by May […]

  33. please sign me up! 🙂 thanks.

  34. I’ve been interested in this book for awhile and would love to win a copy.

    I think it’s great how honest the author was in this post. Very interesting!

  35. I have been interested in your book for a few months. I had already bought it because our book club plans to read it in December,. I had already contacted you about having a conference call in December. But, then I have been reading about you on different blogs particular on Everyday I write the book blog. The book does sound interesting for a book club.
    This another way to get the word out. I have just been learning about book blogs in the last few months. They are great resources for book club leaders. For older clubs for suggestions and new clubs starting out. They are great for word of mouth as well. Also on the blogs can lead you to other reading blogs as well. I am very interested in winning Matrimony for my book club since we will be reading it in December with the added touch of the cheesecake that sounds yummy. We are all transplants from NY/ NJ who now live in Myrtle Beach. We miss a good piece of Jewish Cheese cake from NY.. We are also all Jewish. Who thought there would be members of the tribe in the south!!!

  36. […] Sunday Salon: Ha… on Jill Smolinski, Author Intervi…Susan from The 38th … on Guest Blogger: Author Joshua H…bkclubcare on Guest Post: In Praise of Book …Julie P. on Review: Matrimony by […]

  37. New author to me but I’d love to read the book. Thanks for the opportunity!

  38. Count me in

  39. […] lucky winner of a signed hardcover copy of Matrimony by Joshua Henkin is commenter #12- […]

  40. […] clubs by Shelf Awareness, an extremely popular site in the publishing world, and included a link to his guest post on my site (Thanks, Josh!!). Not only did I see a big bump in hits, I got flooded with offers of […]

  41. >given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter

    I so agree with this as an author – and have such fun as a book club member talking with other authors about their books as well. Wonderful post!

  42. […] in case you didn’t see Lisa’s link in the comment section of my review, Henkin wrote a great post for her blog about his experience with book clubs.  Even if you’re not interested in his […]

  43. […] fine books, and bestsellers for a reason. Of course, there are other options. Author Josh Henkins blogged here recently and offered you a challenge: choose something for your group that half of you haven’t […]

  44. […] author of Matrimony.  After reading several blog posts about this book and an interview he did on Books on the Brain, I’ve wanted to read his […]

  45. […] download this essay (henkin-book-group-essay) that Joshua Henkin wrote that originally appeared here. I highly recommend reading […]

  46. […] To read a great essay written by Joshua Henkin that was featured on Lisa’s book blog Books On The Brain, click HERE.  […]

  47. […] I have written elsewhere about my experience visiting book groups, but in short, though I approached the endeavor with a good deal of wariness (I started out thinking of book groups as a kind of Ladies who Lunch and I expected my own experience to be If it’s Tuesday it Must be Darien), I have been pleasantly surprised. Not every book group member is a sophisticated reader (not every MFA student is a sophisticated reader, either, nor is every book critic), but quite a few are, and they are passionate about what they read. More important, book groups are creating new readers. People usually join a book group for social reasons, but reading a book is part of the deal, and so a reader is created out of someone who wasn’t one before. […]

  48. […] Check out Josh’s fabulous guest post he wrote for Books on the Brain, in which he encourages book clubs to branch out beyond the 12 or so popular titles making the rounds: HERE […]

  49. […] to join or start one. After reading some of what author Joshua Henkin* has written about his experiences visiting dozens of book clubs, I have the impression we do things a little differently from what […]

  50. […] a book group guide or invite him to participate in your group HERE. This essay first appeared at Books on the Brain. This is an excerpt, so go there to read even […]

  51. […] Books on the Brain Planet Books Musings of a Bookish Kitty […]

  52. […] So, warm up your commenting fingers and go to it. You only have one week to sign up and you know you want a free, autographed, well-written book for yourself in these troubled economic times, right? And then when you love it, you can get your book club to read it too and the author may even join in on the discussion- you can see his post on working with book clubs here. […]

  53. […] wrote a wonderful guest post for me last year about book clubs that really struck a nerve, judging from the dozens of comments […]

  54. […] wrote a wonderful guest post for me last year about book clubs that really struck a nerve, judging from the dozens of comments […]

  55. […] wrote a wonderful guest post for me last year about book clubs that really struck a nerve, judging from the dozens of comments […]

  56. […] the type of author that loves reaching out to readers, and he is available to talk to book groups (read this terrific post which appeared on Lisa’s blog Books on the […]

  57. […] in a number of book group discussions, and he talked about his experiences in a guest post at Books on the Brain. Matrimony was a New York Times Notable Book, and Mr. Henkin hopes you will think about buying it […]

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