Saturday, November 19, 2011

Women's Book Clubs: Why or Why Not?

I belong to a venerable neighborhood book club: it is at least thirty years old, and some of our members have been in it almost that long! I like the fact that it's a neighborhood book club, and that we arrive on foot at the hostess's house, and we can walk home together. Last night I walked just around the corner to my neighbor's house to go to the meeting. It was nice to see her family photographs and to get to know her a little better.

Almost all of my women friends over the age of about thirty belongs to a book club. But none of my male friends do. It seems to be an accepted fact of life in America that only women join book clubs. It's not that men don't read: some of my male friends read a lot. But they don't seem to feel a need to discuss what they read with other men, and only other men, in the way that women seem to want to discuss their reading with other women.

Or maybe men just don't like to be told by a group what to read. I know at least one woman who doesn't belong to a book club for that very reason: she likes to choose her own reading matter. I like to choose my own reading matter too, but I can squeeze in a group book from time to time. (I don't read all our book club's selections, because I am often out of town for the meetings. Also I don't read the books that I don't think I am going to like.)

It's an interesting difference between men and women: women like to read books together and then discuss them. Men don't. Maybe the reason is just that women like to talk more?

Another reason we don't have co-ed book clubs may be the fact that women's book clubs seem to read mainly books about women! In fact it seems that there is an unlimited market for contemporary fiction that is written quite specifically for women to read in groups. I suspect that The Help was such a book; it was written not only for women to read together in their clubs, but so that the movie rights would be bought (for a huge sum) and then women could go to the movies together! A money-maker all around.

These contemporary "chick books" often revolve around some way in which women are, or have been, oppressed. There are oppressed women in The Help, of course. Another mainstay of women's book clubs is an awful, treacly novel called Snowflower and the Secret Fan.  I will admit now that I read that book even though I hated it. It was about foot-binding in China. I've read other, non-fiction books about foot-binding, and I don't object to reading about it in principle, but this book's title put me off from the beginning, as it sounds like a book written for "young adults," aka seventh graders. Maybe it reminded me of a Nancy Drew book like The Secret of the Old Clock.  But at least that one wasn't called Nancy Drew and the Old Clock.

There are cultural, regional, and ethnic subsets of books about how women have been oppressed: there are books about slavery and Jim Crow, and Holocaust books, and foot-binding books, and probably child-bride books, and certainly books about Muslim girls who can't go to school (Greg Mortenson's books are another mainstay of women's book clubs.) Last night we were brainstorming about new contemporary novels to read, and I was thinking to myself that maybe I should propose a book about Hillbilly-American women (my own regional and ethnic group), but the only book I could think of right away was Winter's Bone, which is about Kentucky people who cook meth. That didn't seem to stack up well next to the Holocaust survivor books, so I didn't suggest it. It might encourage invidious comparisons. Also, there are a lot of men in that book, and a man wrote it. (On the other hand, there is a movie based on it. But it's really violent.)

OK, so men don't belong to book clubs because (1) they don't need to discuss their reading with other guys or women; and (2) they don't like to be told what to read; and (3) so many books these days are about how mean men are to women. What can we do to change this? Do we need to change it?

Maybe not! Maybe book clubs are the new beauty parlors. Women don't spend hours in the beauty parlor any more chatting with other women; we don't have time. We just get our hair cut at Walmart in fifteen minutes and continue on with our duties. And because we are so busy, we barely have time to talk to our friends without some excuse like a book...about other women's lives! This is, of course, different from the seventies, when women in consciousness-raising groups talked about their own lives. Maybe a book club where we talk about pretend women is as close as we can get these days to a real feminist discussion.

And that brings me to another weird thing about book clubs: we sit around talking passionately about people who aren't real!  As an English major I feel as if I'm betraying my tribe by saying that it's weird to talk about fictional characters as if they were real and to judge their behavior by our own moral standards. After all, the novel from its very beginning has been about the moral dilemmas of female characters. Jane Austen practically invented the modern novel single-handedly. And Elizabeth Bennett is as real as any person who's ever lived, to me anyway.

One day I was thinking about whether Elizabeth Bennett is real or not, and if so, in what sense. She lived a long time ago (in the early 1800s); I've heard a lot about her (from one book and a lot of movies); and she's probably a composite based on people who actually lived. In that sense, she's not that different from Mary Mump, or Sadie Hunt, or Uncle Jack, people in my family that I've heard a lot about, but that I never met, because they died before I was born. Some of my ancestors and extended ancestral family are like characters in a book to me: I've heard a lot of stories about them, and they lived a long time ago, and the stories have probably been embellished and exaggerated as the years have gone by. I always think of those people as real. Maybe stories about real people--embellished over the years, handed down--are the roots of modern fiction. So in that sense, Elizabeth Bennett is as real, in a way, as my great-grandmother, Jenny Shannon.

Still. Nowadays, when the real world is falling apart, and real people's problems are so acute and dramatic, fiction often seems superfluous. Sometimes talking about fictional people seems like sort of a waste of time. But maybe the test of good fiction is whether it can seem compelling enough to NOT be a waste of time. I never feel as if I have wasted time on something superfluous and fictional when I read Faulkner, for example. Those characters ARE real, based on stories Faulkner's grandparents told him, and on his research into the history of the South through the ledger books, for example. For some reason, though, we don't read Faulkner in our book club. Or Jane Austen. Or any other old books. Maybe we should.

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