Reading With Purpose: Four Reasons Every Writer Should Join a Book Club
About a year ago, my friend decided to start a book club, and he asked me to join. It seemed like a logical move on my part: I've always been an avid reader, consuming books either as meals for intellectual sustenance or desserts for joy and entertainment. It was for this reason, however, that I had serious reservations about becoming a member. I always have a significant stack of novels that I'm trying to work through. Whether they're books I want to read, or books I feel I should read because they're general classics or hallmarks of my preferred genres—horror, sci-fi, and some fantasy—this stack is a bit intimidating. Yet it is built of texts I've chosen myself that I'm eager to devour, so I simply work through it one book at a time.
In this way, joining a group in which a decent chunk of my reading material is selected by other people was intimidating to me. How could I ever hope to get through my own pile when I'm busy reading other books?
Despite my reservations, I ultimately decided to join. If it didn’t work out for me, I reasoned, I could always bow out. Well, here we are, one year later, and I'm still a member. I'm glad I decided to take that chance and accept my friend’s offer, not only because I’ve discovered some wonderful books, but also because I feel my fiction writing has improved since joining.
After reading this column, I hope you'll be inspired to go out and start/join your own group. You can even take part in online clubs, like the one we offer right here at LitReactor. Participating in a club demands a greater dedication to books, an more studious approach to reading, and a commitment to timeliness. If you're serious about being a writer, you'll find all these things are well worth it.
Here we go.
1. Book Clubs Move You Outside Your Comfort Zone
Remember that stack of books I mentioned before? I alluded to the presence of several 'general' classics amidst the pile of mainly horror, sci-fi and fantasy. If it sounded before like the distribution was even between these genre texts and the literary heavyweights, I’m sorry to say I’ve mislead you. Sure, there are some big name authors and books in there that are blind spots for me—Flannery O'Connor, Joseph Heller's Catch 22, Catcher in the Rye (I know, I know, scandalous!)—but for the most part my to-read list is populated with the kinds of books I enjoy the most. I love reading these speculative texts, and I love writing them. Yes, it is important to be well read in the genre that you want to write. Absolutely. One Hundred Percent. And not just the obvious ones, the Gaimans and Gibsons and Kings, but the underrated champions as well. Study the masters. Hell, even read those authors who are overlooked for good reason, as it's just as important to learn what not to do.
That being said, reading outside your preferred genre—your comfort zone—is important too. As Richard Thomas says in his Storyville column, Finding Your Voice, "Step outside your comfort zone and see what else you can learn. Every genre has something to offer you."
Thomas is speaking specifically about the writing process here, but I think the idea applies to the texts you consume as well. Reading one genre can teach you much about writing another. Think about literary fiction, which is most definitely a genre in its own right: the emphasis there is less on plot, more on character and human interaction. The works of Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Saul Bellow, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bernard Malamud, Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Safran Foer, Jonathan Lethem and a host of others fall into this category (the last two dip into speculative or magical realism territory, but you get what I’m saying).
There is a clear divide between ‘literary’ writers and ‘genre’ writers, but I’ll let Stephen Graham Jones give you the skinny on that one. I will say, if you do harbor any prejudices one way or another, please reread Richard Thomas’ quote above. And if you’re a speculative writer, consider that a well written piece of ‘literary’ or non-speculative fiction can teach you all about human drama, how we as a species interact with one another, and the wonderful, terrible things we do to each other. Because Austen, Fitzgerald, Lethem and all the aforementioned authors have one thing in common: they put fascinating friendships and relationships of all shades on the page, often mapping the course between two people from sweet to bitter to bittersweet and back to sweet again (or not). No matter how wild your setting may be, it’s crucial to maintain a sense of humanity and drama—even if your protagonists aren’t human. Readers have to identify not just with the characters, but their tragically flawed, selfish, or downright kind behavior, and their angry, hurt, or overjoyed responses to the actions of their peers.
Reading the ‘literary’ genre will train you in the art of human drama, and being a member of a book club will put you in a good position to consume lots of these texts, especially since many of the above authors’ work falls into that ‘general classics’ category. In this way, your book club membership ensures healthy doses of texts outside your comfort zone.
The inverse is true as well: if you primarily read non-speculative fiction, there will probably be at least one member of the group who primarily selects speculative works. Don’t shy away from these books, and don’t be snooty about it. Remember, “Every genre has something to offer you.”
2. Book Clubs Promote Discussion and Analysis of Books
While in college, I always loved it when a lively classroom debate erupted over a book—debates lasting the entire period, where excellent and contentious points were made and every student was thoroughly invested in the conversation. It didn't happen often, as most people at my university were only there because that's just what you do after high school. But when it did, it really made me feel I was getting my money's worth.
Book club meetings are nice because, with a few exceptions, these discussions happen every time. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian sparked nice discussions about the duality of humanity and how quickly we can turn evil, given the right environment and circumstances, and whether this proclivity toward evil is inherent in all of us, or whether it’s strictly the cause of nurture; Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut made us question the meaning we prescribe to our existence, and wonder whether the distinctions between good and evil are even necessary, since they appear to be the same thing anyway (“So it goes.”); and Philip K. Dick's Ubik lead to a debate about problematic depictions of women in literature via Dick's own usage of the virgin/whore dichotomy.
Internet strike me down for speaking ill of Dick, but the fact remains: even if you love a book—and I definitely loved Ubik—it's okay to identify its flaws and discuss, with your peers, where the text could have been improved. Group discussions are the best environment for noticing these things. I'll admit that I didn't notice the gender issues inherent in Ubik until another group member pointed them out. Acknowledging these flaws doesn't mean I have to stop liking the book or admiring its author, it simply means I have a more well-rounded understanding of both the book and the author's inner-workings. Had I not been in the group, this newfound knowledge might have forever slipped under my critical radar.
As a writer, the desire to dissect a book for its themes, symbols, allusions, recurring imagery, and all things subtextual should be obvious. A deep understanding of any text helps you understand how books are assembled. It’s the same as taking apart a stereo or bicycle so you can learn how to put it back together again, examining every screw, wire, and bolt and understanding how it fits within the grander scheme of operation. Recognizing the nuts and bolts of other author’s work will help you identify and shape those things in your own writing. And again, you can do this kind of analytical work on your own, but then you’re working in a vacuum; you only have one person to bounce ideas off of—yourself—and you’ll never really grow that way.
Try it: think of a book you know and love but that you’ve never really discussed with anyone. Now, go to GoodReads or Amazon and start reading reviews (with your bullshit detector cranked to the max, of course). What opinions and viewpoints stand out to you? Are there ideas in those interpretations that you’ve never thought of before but that you absolutely agree with? If so, then you should really understand the importance of a book club in this regard.
3. Book Clubs Promote Active, Rather Than Passive Reading
You might be saying, "But Christopher, me and my friends sit around talking about books all the time. Isn't this the same thing as a book club?"
Close, but not quite. Let's say you find yourself in a coffee shop with a group of nine people (the same number of people in my group), and someone brings up Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl (which I haven't read yet, but it's popular right now). Let's also say that all nine people have actually read the book. You might have an impromptu, lively discussion about the book, but it would never be exactly like the book club experience, which I'll explain in a minute. It's more likely a good chunk of those people sitting at that table haven't read Gone Girl, at which point the discussion would be squelched either because of spoiler concerns or because the conversation essentially makes no sense to them.
Okay, the reason that impromptu conversation wouldn’t be the same: when you know a group discussion is impending, you're more apt to read the novel in question actively. Going back to the idea that book club meetings are a bit like attending class, if you know you might be quizzed or in some way asked questions about the text you're reading, you'll want to read critically and with a keen eye, gleaning subtext and symbols while simultaneously enjoying the narrative. Your book club is not functioning properly if every member merely says, “Uh...I liked it. I thought it was cool,” and leaves it at that. If a text isn’t consumed actively, the conversation will not be active either. This isn’t to say it won’t be interesting or engaging, or that excellent points won’t be brought up, it’s just that these elements will occur passively, with less structure and more, “And that part when such and such did such and such? Yeah, that was awesome. God, what a great book!” Again, not a bad thing, just inherently different from the kind of discussion a book club offers.
For writers, these are desirable discussion to have because again, you're actively deconstructing novels not only for their meaning, but also for the elements that worked and those that didn't. If you’re a writer, you should be reading actively anyway, and better yet, journaling or blogging about your thoughts. But give it a try in a group setting. Have your ideas countered or supported/expanded upon, and see just how much it enriches your understanding of the book. Again, working in a vacuum is not a good thing.
4. Book Clubs Make You Think Like An Editor
I’ve joked sometimes with my fellow book clubbers that, when it comes my time to select again, I’m going to pick something really difficult to get through—like Infinite Jest—or something painfully didactic, like a textbook. This is funny because the actual aim of any book selection is to find something that isn’t too light, yet not too heavy either. Even Blood Meridian is comprehensible so long as you’re paying attention (and maybe using an online study guide).
To date, there hasn’t been a selection that everyone hated across the board, because we understand the group’s collective or medium taste, and we all try to follow that standard when we make our choices. Yet at the same time, we don’t want to fall into a comfort zone trap, which means we have to test the boundaries of our taste—i.e., find a book that subverts our expectations while also completely satisfying them. Last time around I picked Slaughterhouse Five. I hadn’t read it yet, but I knew Vonnegut and I expected the group would find it both blackly funny and engrossing on an intellectual level—both entertaining and challenging. For my next pick, I’m introducing the group to horror with The Shining, because I know they won’t go for anything too extreme, and though Stephen King’s text is rather horrifying, it isn’t necessarily gory; also, I feel there’s much to be said about King’s analysis of American family life, American values, and American alcoholism that many people tend to miss (because, AHHHHH!!!! Haunted Hotel). This is more or less what an editor or a publisher has to do when considering stories to accept into the fold. They have to ask themselves, how is this both falling in line with and turning the tables on the kinds of books we like to publish?
So, why is it important for a writer to think like an editor? Shouldn’t authors write for themselves first, and let the audience find them? Absolutely. Don’t write anything under the pretense that it will sell or be popular. Those are fairly objective terms, and as much as a text belongs to the public once it’s published, the writing of said text is a subjective act. That’s where all of that ‘original voice’ stuff comes from—you, the individual writer, pouring that all-important concoction of the self and imagination onto the page. Yes, absolutely, write for you.
However, simply knowing how ‘the other half’ thinks won’t necessarily alter the way you write, at least not on a conscious level. Let’s say you’ve been writing a lot of horror (as I have), and you or someone else in the group selects something like The Shining. Everyone reads it, and when you converge, the main consensus amongst the group is this: the book was scary largely because it takes a normal person—flawed, no different than you and I—and turns their whole world into a nightmare; immerses them so deeply into this hell that they become the embodiment of the nightmare. Hearing this direct audience feedback, understanding what exactly makes King’s book so horrifying, can inform your direction the next time you sit down to write. Maybe you’ve been focusing too much on the nightmare world, not enough on the human experience of such. Perhaps your protagonists are unsympathetic and horrible from the get-go, rather than traveling a path of sympathetic figure to destructive force, like the journey Jack Torrance travels. Maybe you’re stuck in the cliche of ‘haunted hotels,’ without understanding the complexities of that now all-too familiar narrative—why is it scary, what makes it tick?
When you've written your story, step away and reread it. Ask yourself, does this work? Does this ending satisfy every narrative thread and character arc I've created so far. Do I provide catharsis and resolution without delivering exactly what the audience expected? It may please my writer's side, but does it please the editor in me? These are the questions that, I feel, take you to the next level—from a dabbler to a serious writer, and your membership in a book club will help train you to ask those questions, both of the monthly selections and of your own writing.
Connecting through stories is a human experience going back to the dawn of our species (or thereabouts...I don't know for sure, I wasn't there). If you've decided to be a professional storyteller, then hopefully you've realized your success depends on other people reading your stuff. This is why we workshop, this is why we edit and rewrite and reread, edit and rewrite and reread, over and over again until our story is as perfect as it possibly can be.
Likewise, I believe our own reading should be enhanced by other people who've experienced the same book, in a slightly more formal setting than your average coffee shop conversation (though by all means, continue having those as well). Understanding how other authors and texts work—how these stories operate, how effective they are at moving us—is essential to our own storytelling toolkit, and this knowledge isn't completely rounded until we see multiple viewpoints, multiple opinions, multiple experiences.
So get out there. Round up your bookish friends, pick a novel to read, and get at it. If you read fast, there's still time to participate in LitReactor's May discussion, Angel Falls by Michael Paul Gonzalez. Come out from that vacuum and start taking yourself to the next level. You won't regret it.
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