With Her Nose Stuck in a Book: The Feminine Face of Book Clubs - Verily

“From the first sentence, I was IN . . . I was opened, I was shook up, it woke me up, and I feel that everybody who reads this book is actually going to be immersed in the experience of what it means to be a migrant on the run for freedom. So I want you to read it. Come read with us.”

Oprah Winfrey greeted her fans with these words on January 21, 2020, announcing her new pick for Oprah’s Book Club: American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins about Mexican refugees fleeing a deadly drug cartel.

The selection was met with a tsunami of anger. Cummins is a white woman (although she belatedly claimed partial Puerto Rican ancestry), and according to the strict rules of intersectionality on Twitter, her novel was selfish. “You’re fetishizing the pain and cultural heritage of refugees and immigrants to sell a story that’s not yours to sell,” fumed one angry tweeter. When the New York Times’ reviewer seemed to come out with a too-positive take, the cancellation squad quickly pivoted to ponder the question of whether white women should be allowed to review such books.

Meanwhile, the besieged author methodically smashed pie after problematic pie into her own face. Her publisher implied that Cummins’ husband was an undocumented immigrant, neglecting to mention that he is from Ireland. Photos from a book party surfaced, and the centerpieces were made of barbed wire, inspired by imagery on American Dirt’s cover. Critics pointed out that in real life, such wire maims and kills the desperate families trying to climb over it, making it a poor choice for a decorative accessory. It turned out that Cummins had even praised a fan’s barbed wire-themed nail art, declaring it “next level awesome.

On January 26, Oprah posted on her Book Club’s Instagram page, saying “It’s clear that we need to have a different kind of conversation about American Dirt and we welcome everyone’s thoughts and opinions in our community.” She provided a reading schedule and promised to “bring people together from all sides to talk about this book, and who gets to publish what stories.” The publisher canceled Cummins’ book tour, citing safety reasons.

It’s not the first time that Oprah’s Book Club has sparked controversy and conversation. And alongside her headline-grabbing, celebrity-powered group, there are thousands of more anonymous gatherings of book readers, sparking similarly passionate discussions in libraries, private homes, and online. Like Oprah’s group, most are run by women, and they are a privileged place: a space where women talk freely to each other about culture, art, and their opinions of the same. Book clubs are a major force in the economics of publishing, and they have reshaped the literary landscape. At the same time, the books we read, and the conversations we have, are shaping us. What women read, discuss, and even argue about, together, matters.

Not just a “ladies’ social club”

Davina Morgan-Witts is the founder and publisher of BookBrowse, a reader’s guide for finding the best books. She’s also an expert on all things book club. She’s researched more than 20,000 readers over more than 15 years, and she has no time for the stereotype that book clubs only read “women’s fiction” or snackable, easy-to-digest McBooks.

“This is an absolute fallacy. There’s a widely held belief among readers not in one that book clubs are primarily social groups not interested in serious reading, but that perception is very far from the truth in most book clubs,” she told me. “The vast majority of people taking part in book clubs do so because they want to learn from the books and from each other, and to be challenged to read books they otherwise wouldn’t have chosen.” She has the data to prove it: in her 2019 research report, The Inner Lives of Book Clubs, 71 percent of respondents said it was “very important or essential” to read books that stretched them as readers, and 91 percent wanted the chance to read books they wouldn’t have picked up on their own.

Why does the stereotype exist? I have to assume it has something to do with the fact that book clubs are so often a female endeavor. Eighty-eight percent of private book groups are all-woman, according to Inner Lives, and even many public library groups, though they’re more diverse, have comparatively fewer male participants. If more guys were involved, would our culture recognize book groups as the engines for ideas and intellectual exchange that they are, instead of largely dismissing them as middle aged ladies getting together to gossip, or young women gathering to drink rosé?

If you suspect I’m exaggerating this popular prejudice, just recall the scene from Desperate Housewives, in which the eponymous housewives meet for a session of the “Wisteria Lane Book Club.”

Lynette: I thought the character of Madame Bovary was . . . very inspirational.

Alberta: Inspirational? She poisons herself with arsenic.

Lynette: Really?

Alberta: You didn’t read until the end?

Lynette: I stopped after page 50.

Alberta: Am I the only one who read the book?

Susan: I saw the movie. It was really good.

Alberta: Ladies! I’m sorry, but what is the point of having a book club if we don’t read the book?

Bree: More wine?

Beyond prime-time soap operas, this same dynamic was on display in real life in the notorious incident with author Jonathan Franzen, whose novel The Corrections was an Oprah Book Club pick. At first Franzen accepted the honor graciously. But then he started giving interviews that revealed how he really felt.

“The problem in this case is some of Oprah’s picks,” he told one questioner. “She’s picked some good books, but she’s picked enough schmaltzy, one-dimensional ones that I cringe, myself, even though I think she’s really smart and she’s really fighting the good fight. . . . But of course everybody who’s sold out and been co-opted, as I obviously have, says the same thing, and it makes for a pathetic spectacle.”

In an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air, Franzen said, “I had some hope of actually reaching a male audience, and I’ve heard more than one reader in signing lines now in bookstores say, ‘You know if I hadn’t heard you, I would’ve been put off by the fact that it is an Oprah pick. I figure those books are for women, and I never touch it.’” Franzen didn’t share any insight on why a book that was popular among women should be perceived as “untouchable” by a male reader, in spite of its potential merit. Cooties, no doubt.

Franzen went so far as to express disdain for the Book Club sticker destined to appear on new editions of The Corrections. Eventually, Oprah uninvited him from her show (although the Club still read the book). Franzen made a groveling apology, presumably at the instigation of his publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Although The Corrections was a bestseller, it’s not clear whether it ever found the smaller, sufficiently “serious,” male audience the author thought his work deserved.

Joining, or starting, a book club

“The book club is one of the most joyful and most annoying things in a reader’s life,” writes Lauren Leto in Judging a Book By Its Lover. For Leto, there is no bliss like talking books with fellow lovers of the written word—unless your book club is populated by people with bad takes who won’t stop talking. So, if you don’t have enough delightful irritation in your life, what’s the best way to stick your nose in?

“First, there’s no such thing as a one-size-fits-all book club,” Morgan-Witts says. “The challenge that many people encounter, whether they’re starting a book club, adding more people to an existing club or joining a club that’s already established, is expectations. They have an expectation that it’s going to be run in one certain way, then they join and find it’s actually something different.”

Perhaps the most fail-proof way to ensure the book club you join is what you are hoping for is to start your own. “Sitting down as a group and setting the expectation about what you want to read, how books will be chosen and how the discussions will run are all important decisions for the success of a book club,” Morgan-Witts told me. “It’s also a good thing to revisit these decisions on a regular basis and when new people join a group. We offer tips for how to do this in our Book Club Health Check.”

Don’t overlook the power of being specific and finding a niche. “The most meaningless phrase in the world to me is ‘I’m a book lover.’ What does that mean?” Morgan-Witts says. “The reader who loves romantic fiction has very little in common with the person who enjoys meaty nonfiction reads, even though they are both ‘book lovers.’”

There are seemingly endless formats to choose from. You could copy the Boneyard Bookworms, who meet in the peaceful environment of a historic cemetery. Or borrow the successful recipe of Eat Your Books, an online cookbook-based club. The gimmick of the Fine Liquorature reading group is self-explanatory. An introvert might treasure starting a Silent Book Club, where participants congregate in a public space and read whatever they want . . . to themselves. “Reading allowed, not aloud” could be the motto.

“We found that most groups spend at least 40 minutes focused on book discussion at each meeting (and many spend longer), and generally, the longer a book club spends discussing the book, the happier the members are,” Morgan-Witts says. “But not everyone wants lengthy discussions.”

It’s also probably a good idea to plan for potential conflict. “Fight Over Any Good Books Lately?” asked the New York Times in one headline about book clubs. As BookBrowse’s advice section for clubs makes clear, problems can arise with readers who dominate the discussion or tell everyone else that their opinions are half-baked; there’s always the chance a member will show up belligerent or intoxicated (take note, you who would hold your club meetings at a bar). More common, of course, is the sort of division we’ve sadly almost come to expect in our culture.

“When we carried out the research for our 2019 report, 11 percent of book clubs based in the United States said that they had agreed not to discuss politics, I imagine the number would be considerably higher now,” Morgan-Witts says. “We also sampled a smaller number of book clubs outside the USA and, interestingly, found that none of them had taken politics off the table. I’ve anecdotally heard from some book clubs who’ve lost members because it’s just got too fractious, which is why some groups say we’re just not going to discuss it.”

Perhaps the prospect of crossing (friendly) swords is part of the fun of a reading group. The chance to go deep, to go beyond small talk and learn from other perspectives can be life changing, and ultimately, maybe even world changing.

Amy L. Campbell is a librarian who runs the Novel Colors Comic Book Club as a public library outreach program in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the rare reading groups that is mostly men—but, even so, facilitated by a woman. “With comics there’s a lot more going on than [just] words on the page,” she told me. “Yes, [the readers] relate to characters sometimes, but many comics explore darker aspects of human nature. . . . We also talk about artistic choice used to execute the story graphically and whether or not we find the styles personally appealing versus if it works for the story.

“It gives me an opportunity to explore a genre in ways I might not otherwise,” she says. “The members often pick books I don’t really have an interest in reading, but sometimes I’m surprised and enjoy it more than I expected.”

“You change the world one person at a time,” Morgan-Witts told me. “I remember when my daughter was about ten saying to me, ‘Mommy, I’m never going to change the world!’ She’d seen some person do something incredible in the news, and she said ‘I’m never going to be like that person.’ I told her that if you can just change the world for one person, or make a change for the better in your community, if you can go through life adding more value than you take from it, you have changed the world.

“That’s what book clubs can do. Not only do they create a sense of community and personal friendships, research shows that books that immerse the reader in someone else’s life build empathy and compassion in the reader; and then discussing the books and understanding other people’s perceptions of them broadens the whole experience even further.”

Even if it’s via a Zoom call or a Facebook group—even if it’s just clicking around to follow Emma Watson’s group, or Sarah Jessica Parker’s, or yes, Oprah’s book club—find your ladies, and start reading!