Why Writers Need Book Clubs

In times when magazines are folding and publishers want brand names, authors write without knowing if we'll be read. But book groups allow us to learn what moved readers (or didn't).
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As a working mother, I have to pursue my literary pleasures with tunnel-vision passion and 007 stealth. I sneak reading time in the bathtub, at lunch, and before bed. I read books in line at the grocery store, and yes, even to sports practices, looking up between chapters to holler, "Good job, honey!" at my kids.

When we moved to a new town a few years ago, our youngest child was in third grade and I was invited to join a book club named "Mothers of Third Graders." B-O-R-I-N-G, I thought. Why go to a book club, when I can stay home and read?

"You might learn something," my husband pointed out. "You are, after all, a writer."

Hmph. The only people who like crowds less than readers are writers, but he had a point. Maybe it was time to see what other people were reading.

"I'll go," I muttered, "but I won't promise to like it."

I didn't, at first. This was a big, noisy book club made up of women whose children have known each other from the womb. I felt like an outcast. Plus, these women read best-selling commercial fiction like Twilight and anything by Jodi Picoult. What was there to discuss?

Plenty, it turned out -- and a lot of the conversation was intense and intimate in surprising ways. We writers work in solitude, usually with nothing more than a dog to consult about plot twists, descriptions and character development. Joining a book group has taught me how writers can reach readers better -- or leave them out in the cold. This particular group talked about the characters as if the characters, too, lived in our neighborhood: "Why did she marry him?" "If I had a kid like that, I'd put him in boarding school," etc. They talked about plot, setting, and the occasional emotional resolution, but hardly ever about the thing writers ponder most: the sentences. Readers just want a good story, duh.

After we discuss the book -- which might take five minutes or two hours -- our conversations morph into an open forum about families, schools, work, sex, the economy, religion, politics, and every other topic that you can imagine included in the fabric of daily discourse. Even if these women hate a book, it's a springboard for discussion.

When my own book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter: A Memoir, was published recently, I decided to contact book groups. I left my phone number at libraries, put the word out to friends, and added something to my web site so that book groups would know that I was available. I didn't expect much response. Again, I was surprised: book groups did contact me. I met with over a dozen last year, and discovered that being an author at a book group is like being an anthropologist, an American Idol contestant, and a lottery winner all rolled into one.

As a book club anthropologist, I observe each group's unique character and habitat. There are wino book groups and sober book groups. I see alpha moms and women too shy to speak until after the wine is poured. There are book groups with millionaires and groups where the women haven't attended college. Some have themes, like cooking foods from the book. Others have a strict classroom atmosphere, with members adhering only to discussion questions put out by the publisher.

Being an author at a book group discussion is also like being on American Idol: You never know whether the judges are going to praise your performance or say, like Randy, "That was pitchy, dawg. I just didn't get it."

"It seems like a long way to drive," my husband said the other night, as I headed off to a book group ninety miles from home. "Is it worth it?"

It is. Wherever I go, and whatever people think of my book, I learn about women's lives. Perhaps because my book is a memoir about a father who raises gerbils, women are amazingly open about their own eccentric parents, troubled childhoods, obsessive husbands or clever mothers. I always come away astounded and humbled by their stories.

In the end, meeting with people who have actually read your book is mostly like winning the lottery: I have never felt so lucky. These are hard times for writers and readers, with magazines folding, book publishers often springing only for name brand authors, and independent book stores dwindling. Authors spend hours each day writing, without knowing if anything we put on the page will ever be read. Book groups allow us to learn what moved our readers (or didn't). They inspire us, giving us hope that writing is a craft worth pursuing.

And, as a woman visiting women's book groups, it helps me feel part of a sisterhood, an extended network of women who work, think, parent, love, grieve, dream, believe, cry and laugh as they journey through their unique lives, support one other, and bring books to life.

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