Espionage, plot twists, who-dunnits, shocking endings… and that’s before you even open the novel! Welcome to the rollercoster world of book groups.
A friend of mine has dedicated the past few months of her life to the most extraordinary espionage. It has involved lying, betrayal and secret channels of communication on a scale that would make Vladimir Putin blush. And all because she didn’t like her book group.
Actually, that isn’t fair. She loved her book group. Like tens of thousands of people up and down the country, she and her friends would read a different book every fortnight, then pile into one of their houses, trash the book, get drunk and end up gossiping about the other mums from school. What she didn’t love was one member who became known as the Dictator.
‘She was brutal,’ my friend recounts. ‘We’re all busy people, and it’s understood that sometimes we could coast through a session without having really read the book properly.’ But the Dictator wouldn’t stand for such laziness. ‘She’d track us down at the school gates and pester us about what chapter we were up to. There was nowhere to hide.’
The Dictator ruined the book group, turning something fun into a gruelling homework marathon. And so, citing a lack of free time, my friend and all her non-Dictator counterparts broke up the group. Then they reformed – without the Dictator. ‘I do feel bad about it,’ my friend admits, ‘but the book group is so much easier without her. Three weeks ago we did Nine Perfect Strangers and none of us had read it. We just got drunk instead.’
In a world of madness, the book group is an oasis of calm. It’s a haven where likeminded friends can intelligently discuss the themes and subtexts within important literary works. It’s estimated that 50,000 book groups operate in the UK, and nothing bad ever happens in any of them. Except it does, all the time, because book groups are a terrible idea. It’s is a place where people – with all their real-world grudges and rivalries – gather and voice their opinions, which is always a huge mistake. But, as if that wasn’t recipe enough for disaster, these people all get steadily more drunk as the evening progresses. It’s a miracle that all book groups don’t descend into fist fights.
I got my first taste of the boiling underbelly of the book club a couple of years ago, after a friend of mine kindly suggested to her group that they read a book I had just written. A week later, she sent me a text. ‘That went terribly,’ she wrote. ‘Three people absolutely hated it.’ To make matters worse, my friend had tried to defend the book, which just made everyone dig their trenches deeper, until the criticism strayed from the literary to the personal. Long story short, that particular group doesn’t exist any more.
The fascination with book groups is that all the juicy stuff happens behind closed doors. But occasionally it goes public, and when it does it’s explosive. In April, the comedian Stuart Laws witnessed a turn of events so incredible that he started a live running commentary on Twitter. It kicked off in a café, when one woman gathered up the dirty plates on her table and dumped them straight on to another woman’s table. The woman promptly put them back, sparking a psychodrama of epic proportions – and this was even before either of them were aware they were in the café for the same reason: a new book club. By the time the group started, these two were sworn enemies – deliberately knocking over water and putting their mugs down on each other’s books – and their bitterness culminated when one of the women pointedly suggested Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test for the next meeting.
Most book groups have a story about things getting out of hand. One meeting that promised ‘casual snacks’, descended into a veritable Come Dine With Me of brutal snack-upmanship that reached its nadir when a host proudly uncovered three types of artisan bread and a dozen expensive cheeses. Another group discovered that one member hadn’t actually read any of the books, watching the film adaptations instead (she was caught out because, instead of reading Les Liaisons Dangereuses like everyone else, she viewed Cruel Intentions – a modern take – on Netflix).
There’s evidence that book groups can do a lot of good, rehabilitating former convicts and improving literacy in countries such as Afghanistan. They’re a great idea in principle. In practice, however, they are often too full of clashing personalities to succeed. There’s the member who likes to dominate the discussion, the one who would rather gossip, the one who comes in with a firm line on the book and gets angry when anybody disagrees. As the writer Nikki Walsh once pointed out, ‘these women are at different life stages so, while one wants to talk about labour pains, another wants to lament the lack of men worth dating. Then there’s the needy book club bore, who treats it like a free therapy session and tries to hog the floor with tales of her failing marriage or incompetent boss.’
The problem, clearly, is a lack of rules. Book groups are supposed to be informal and fun, but that means that they’re also open to interpretation. In America a small cottage industry of paid book group facilitators has sprung up to combat this. These usually take the form of women, often retired academics, who pick the books and structure the discussions, and charge around £400 a meeting for the privilege.
Perhaps the root cause of most disruptions is the books themselves. They are private, precious, highly individual things, made up of dozens of elements that have to exactly align in order for you to enjoy them. This is why vouchers exist, because if everyone just gave each other books based on their own taste, the world would crumble under the weight of unread copies. And so to organise an entire social life based around books that someone else is forcing you to read is, frankly, a fool’s errand.
So many friends of mine have ducked out of book groups because they were sick of reading novels they either thought had no critical merit or were too abstractly intellectual. I know of one group that devised a way to try to appease both sides: a Guilty Pleasures night. ‘The idea was that we’d read blockbuster novels, cheesy reads or chick-lit hits that you’d be embarrassed to read in public, but discuss them as we would literature,’ she says. They devoured Rivals, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Thorn Birds and Danielle Steel books; if they wanted to enjoy them on their own merit, they could. If they wanted to mock them, they could do that, too. Miraculously, the group survived.
In fact, this might be the way to ensure success: relentless specificity. There are
groups about cookbooks, where people try the recipes, or ones where everyone reads the script of a play rather than a novel. There are walking book clubs, where discussions take place on hikes. Not all need to be a nightmare of booziness and competitive cheeses.
Speaking of which, I think I’ve found the one I want to join. Founded in 2012, the Silent Book Club in London follows this itinerary: ‘11-11.30am: people arrive, share what they’re reading. 11.30am-12.30pm: quiet reading time followed by optional socialising, or just keep reading.’ So, it’s a book club where you turn up, read anything you like in silence then go home. It sounds perfect.
Report by Stuart Heritage