February 03, 2005

Snarky Over Book Clubs...

In a recent CBC Arts online rant, Book Club Virgin, (And Proud Of It: The Scorn of the Solitary Reader, Li Robbins takes aim at book clubs and the publishers who love them.

I’ve been invited to join book clubs, and while outwardly I might
politely smile, inwardly I heave. It’s a prospect I find about as appealing as
attending the Canadian Academic Accounting Association’s annual Christmas party. (Although, come to think of it, the CAAA might at least have decent booze. I’m willing to bet the majority of book clubs are strictly President’s Choice Chai (decaf) or at best, white wine – from a large-sized bottle.)

Why so snarky, Li?

I support and applaud your desire to have a book all to yourself. (I certainly wouldn't want a dozen or so book clubbies crashing in on my daily ritual of reading while soaking in the tub.) That said, I wonder if you truly understand the power and meaning that a book club can bring to a person's life.

History speaks for itself. In the mid to late 1800's women's "literary clubs" started popping up all over the place. England, Canada, the U.S. and so on. Some of these savvy, thinking women were not only discussing literature, they were secretly laying the groundwork for the suffragist movement. (These women also knew that husbands would be more willing to support their wives attending a 'literary club' than a suffragist meeting.)

In 1876, physician and suffragist Emily Jennings Stowe founded The Toronto Women's Literary Club. Women in Newfoundland started the Ladies Reading Room and Current Events Club. Nellie McClung, suffragist and politician, founder of the Winnipeg Political Equality League and the Federated Women's Institutes of Canada was also an active member of The Calgary Women's Literary Club (which was founded by by Mrs. Annie Davidson).

Here are just a few of the activities of The Toronto Women's Literary Club...
Members prepared papers on women's professional achievements, education, and the vote. The Literary Club campaigned successfully to improve women's working conditions. Stowe lectured on "Women's Sphere" and "Women in the Professions." She said that a woman "ought to understand the laws governing her own being." Because of pressure by the Literary Club, some higher education in Toronto was made available to women—though Stowe protested that the medical course first planned for women was substandard. Stowe campaigned for better medical education for women and influenced several eminent physicians. In 1883 a public meeting of the Toronto Women's Suffrage Association led to the creation of the Ontario Medical College for Women.
from an article by Irene Baros-Johnson

And if you need a more contemporary account of the power of the book club, may I recommend, Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran.
Reading Lolita in Tehran, a memoir by Azar Nafisi, the daughter of a former charismatic mayor of pre-revolutionary Tehran and of a woman who won a seat in Parliament in 1963, chronicles the personal and intellectual unfoldings of a private literature class she started in Tehran after she left her last teaching post.
from Book Group in Chadors A Review by Mona Simpson

As far as your take on the publishing industry goes...
Nonetheless, your cute little ol’ book club is not necessarily exempt from the canny wiles of the publishing industry. Book club consultants and
books telling you how to run a book club are just a small sign of this greater force at work. Another, those annoying “reader’s guides” that began popping up in trade paperback editions of “women’s fiction” about five years ago. These guides cost publishers more money to produce – but they lead to greater sales, since book clubs tend to choose them over a guide-less edition. Most publishers target book clubs on their websites for the same reason. Book clubs are being gently led to the well for a
long drink of whatever publishers want them to swallow.

Do you mean to make every book club member out to be some sort of bleary-eyed zombie who comes to every meeting - reading guide clutched to her chest, bleating out key phrases like- "I related to the protagonist in this novel because..." or "If I had been in the protagonist's shoes I would have..."?
Those wicked, scheming publishers are running a business. They are trying desperately to meet the consumer's desires in order to stay afloat. Shame on them for catering to their customers. Shame on them for trying to turn people's heads away from T.V., the X-box, the latest DVD rental from Blockbuster.

Indigo recently reported that their sales were up due to higher online sales...
Indigo said the online improvement in part relates to the introduction of products for IPod, a popular handheld electronic device for music and other entertainment, on its website.
from The Canadian Press

What's a publisher to do?

You don't like book clubs. You're not a 'joiner'. That's fine. I get it.
But don't go waggling your finger at those who are 'getting it' and a whole lot more from attending a book club. There's a lot more to it than you might think.

Oh, and if you don't like having a reading guide in the back of your trade paperback...just take your trusty ruler, lay it along the crease between the pages, and let it rip! Rip, rip, rip. (I learned that little trick from The Dead Poet's Society.)


canary said...

Right on Ami. I really enjoy my book circle and I have made some very good friends there. We aren't very structured and rarely use the book discussion guides. We get to talk about all kinds subjects which aren't always brought up in other kinds of social situations. Reading Lolita in Tehran made me realise how important books are in MY life and how lucky I am to have the freedom to read and to discuss what I read freely.

Tisha from Texas said...

I don't belong to any book clubs but it's probably because there aren't any in my town and I'm too busy writing my own books.
Congrats on getting published - I found you at Angst101's blog and found your comments interesting.
Since I'm southern, it's better for ya'll northerners if I type since you probably couldn't understand my drawl!
Come see my blog for inane stories of life and general humor.

Anonymous said...

Oh, had I the time to be in a book club! Glad to see your inclusion of the true nature of some of those literary clubs of bygone days. Right now I'm just happy my kids are finally old enough that I can actually READ books again and to write.


Anonymous said...

In regards to Ami's rebuttal to Li Robbins' attack of book clubs. I just wanted to note that you are incorrect in two of your statements.
First, the Calgary Women's Literary Club was not founded by Nellie McClung, although she was a member for a brief period of time later in the club's history. The club was founded by Mrs. Annie Davidson and there is a plaque at the Memorial Park Public Library branch in her honour.
Second, not all literary clubs were a front for suffrage movements/motivations or other political platforms. The CWLC had supported some political agendas (not including suffrage) for the CLCW (Calgary Local Of Women) but decided "that their work was literary, and not to be directed by any other groups."
I hope this helps clear up things somewhat.

Ami said...

Thanks anon.
I have now edited the entry so that Mrs. Annie Davidson's name is noted as the club's founder.

I also added the word 'some' to indicate that not all women's literary groups were a front for other causes. I never intended for anyone to think that in the first place, and I hope that I've now clarified what I meant to say. Trust me, I'm all for "literary work" in the purest sense of meaning!

I looked up the Memorial Park Public Library and found a lovely photo. (Click name to see) It 's very much in the style of my hometown's library. Both were built in the early 1900's and both were partially funded by Andrew Carnegie.

Thanks so much for your comment and for setting the record straight!