Archive for the 'Uncategorized' Category


BGE in The New York Times

Yesterday in the New York Times‘s, there was a great article on the front page of the Sunday Styles section by Joanne Kauffman.  I won’t give a summary; the article is worth reading.  See my comment (on poopy diapers, of all things).  And Ann Kent’s (BGE’s founder) comment about how it’s estimated that we now have over 5 million books groups across this country.

The article is called “Fought Over Any Good Books Lately?” which is exactly what it’s about:  how book groups can go sour for some people.  I bet there isn’t a book group reader out there who isn’t familiar with the hundreds of ways a person can hate or love their book group.  The Times article focuses on the negative, of course, because those stories are the most interesting.  Kathi Goldmark and I figured this out in 2006 when we staged a skit called The Book Group From Hell at the first Book Group Expo.   Every member of The Book Group From Hell (all of us are writers) has a serious personality disorder — characters (caricatures, actually), if you will, who each have the worst traits of our most unpleasant book group members.  In the skit, we discussed The Joy Luck Club, a book that is widely-known.  Of course the skit was supposed to be funny, a little break between literary salons.  What many in the audience didn’t expect and were surprised to discover was that Amy Tan (in diguise) was the Book Group’s most vociferous dissenter on the subject of her own book.  Here’s a photo right after Amy removed her hat with a flourish and turned toward the audience (that’s Kathi playing the harried executive in the background):




Caribousmom is a wonderful blog for readers authored by a prolific reader/writer named Wendy.  See her excellent review of BGE 2008 Day One and BGE 2008 Day Two.  Her photos are better than mine!


watch bge’s political salon

In the spirit of election day tomorrow, we’ve released the videocast of the literary salon titled Ten Days and Counting! Politics Past and Present with authors Will Durst (THE ALL AMERICAN SPORT OF BIPARTISAN BASHING), Jeff Golden (UNAFRAID, A NOVEL OF THE IMPOSSIBLE), Susan Griffin (WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL OF DEMOCRACY), and moderator Sedge Thomson, host of the NPR show West Cost Live.

Watch the video here.  We’d love to hear your comments.


Book group phobia

C.W. Gortner, author of THE LAST QUEEN, will be discussing his work in the Salon called “Historical Friction” on Saturday, Oct. 25th at 11:15 in Salon B.

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I’ll never forget the first time I visited with a book group in person. My novel, THE SECRET LION, had been out for almost two years and I was finishing up my recently-published novel, THE LAST QUEEN. I had heard of book groups, of course, as well as their increasing importance to authors in an era of shrinking marketing dollars. But I’d never been in one and I had no idea of how they worked. Writer friends of mine had been encouraging me to make myself available to these groups; they kept saying, “You’re a great speaker, a real ham. You’re perfect for book groups.”

The truth was, I was secretly terrified. I’d done quite a few readings, signings, public speaking engagements; I had taught classes. I’m good with an audience. But I was scared to the point of phobia of meeting with a group of readers who’d read my book and might question me at close-range about it. What if I’d made some inadvertent error that a reader would point out? What if they hated the book? What if they found my writing trite, irrelevant? What if they laughed at me? It was totally illogical; but every writer struggles with some type of insecurity when it comes to their work; and for me, this was the Bogey Man of my authorial fears— meeting readers up front and personal in an intimate setting.

As often happens, what we most fear, we attract. Shortly after I sold THE LAST QUEEN and another novel via auction to Ballantine Books, I got a call from a local reading group. They had selected THE SECRET LION and wanted to know if I was available to speak to them. What could I say? I agreed and then spent the next forty-five days worrying about it.

On the night I went to the house where the group was meeting, I felt ill. My hands were sweating; I was sure they’d see the beads of perspiration on my forehead and think I was carrying a communicable disease. I could barely speak as I was introduced to everyone, the lump in my throat felt so big. Then, as the hostess offered me a glass of water and indicated the trays of canapés nearby in case I was hungry, a lovely young woman sitting opposite me burst out, “Oh, I loved your book! I couldn’t put it down. I can’t wait to hear you talk about it.”

It was if she’d shot Zen gamma rays at me. All the tension in my body seeped away. I looked about for the first time with clarity and was greeted by seven smiling faces. These are readers, I thought. Readers, like me. People who’d read and liked a book, and were thrilled the author was there to discuss it. How often had I finished a novel and thought, I wish I could tell the author how much I liked it. I wish I could talk to him or her about my impressions. Then the hostess leaned in to me and said softly, with a chuckle in her voice, “You can relax now. We don’t bite.”

That night was one of the best evenings I’ve spent as a writer. We went beyond the hour time-frame, the discussion lively and enthusiastic. I was astonished by how much they’d found to talk about in my work, their different interpretations of it, the messages and themes they’d detected. Some of it was what I had intended while writing the book but a lot of it wasn’t. In the end, I learned far more about who I was as a writer than I’d ever expected, and was profoundly grateful for the experience, knowing it would stay with me forever and inform the ways I looked at my writing. One book group had changed how I approached my craft.

I’ve spoken to several groups since then, some in person and some via phone chat. Invariably, whether it’s twelve readers or five or three, I always learn something new about my work, about how it’s experienced by someone other than me; where I’ve succeeded and where I have not. Not once have I ever put down the phone or closed the door without feeling that deep sense of passion and joy for books that readers bring to the world.

Readers are why I write. I might spend years crafting my sentences and scenes, reveling in my secret world, but in the end I need it to be bound and read by someone other than me. I write for pleasure; but my true reward is when I hear that one reader say: “I loved your book.”

I’m very excited to be attending Book Group Expo this year. It’s an honor and a privilege for me to have been invited and I look forward to meeting the true focus of my endeavors: you, the reader.

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C.W. Gortner, half-Spanish by birth, holds an M.F.A. in Writing, with an emphasis in historical studies, and has taught university courses on women in power in the Renaissance.


Serve your book group radishes

Erika Mailman, author of THE WITCH’S TRINITY, sent in the following entry, not only about the particular habits of her own book group, but about an unusual and inventive surprise that was presented by the host of a book group that had invited her to speak about her novel.

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This will be my third year at Book Group Expo. It’s an incredible get-together for those who love reading. The panels that welcome Q&A from the audience strike me as today’s version of the intellectual salons that once were popular.

My own book club has been meeting for over five years, supporting each other through deaths, marriages, births, divorces. I’m proud that in the midst of our busy lives, we still make a point of getting together every six weeks to hug each other, drink a glass of wine, eat a great dinner… and talk books.

Our group’s idiosyncrasy is that after dessert, we all close our eyes and like Roman emperors use our thumbs to denote our opinion of the book at hand’s success. However, a simple up or down being too crude for our nuanced feelings, we rotate our thumbs anywhere on the 180 degree scale.

We often tailor our meals to the book we’ve read. For instance, potstickers for Nicole Mones’ A Cup of Light and pierogi for Robert Alexander’s The Kitchen Boy.

Towne Center Books in Pleasanton regularly hosts the Read It and Eat Luncheon, where owner Judy Wheeler creates a lunch inspired by the book. She hosted me for THE WITCH’S TRINITY… and believe it or not, she initially served a plate of raw radishes (since jailers feed my character radishes while she awaits her trial). After we all gulped, she whisked those away with a smile and then served a delicious meal based on food from the earth.

I think it’s safe to say most writers are also readers. We love to talk about books, and we’re always excited to find one that escorts us somewhere else, deep into the lives someone else has imagined. I look forward to meeting you at Book Group Expo, and talking about the books that we find there.

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Erika Mailman is the author of The Witch’s Trinity and will be on the BGE panel “Which Witch is Which,” on Saturday the 25th at 1:45 in Salon C. She is interested in visiting book clubs, either via phone or in person. Email her at


“Daddy, are you going to a book group?”

Author Joshua Henkin, who will join us this year to talk about his novel MATRIMONY, sent us the following insightful essay on the nature and influence of book groups.

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These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?”  My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.

I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, a year later, I’d have participated in approximately sixty book group discussions—some in person, some by phone, some on-line.  And this was while MATRIMONY was still in hardback.  With the paperback now out, my life might very well become a book group.

Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups.  MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things.  There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.

But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups.  I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially.  I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it.

I make no bones about this:  I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book.  But there’s a paradox here.  On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY.  You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher a few months ago, is nowhere near complete.  I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.

I say this without a trace of resentment.  I lead a charmed life.  I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it.  And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.

So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes.  First the good news.  From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful.  I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.

Speaking of passion:  I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups.  I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised.  I’ve been trying to determine patterns.  Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself!

Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions.  First, where are all the men?  True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do.  Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes.  And women join book groups and men don’t.  Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting.  And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.

Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following.   Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters.  Flannery O’Connor’s stories.  The novels of Martin Amis.  Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions.  That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science.  The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they are as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.)  But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!

Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it.  This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books.  Eat, Pray, Love.  The Memory Keeper’s Daughter.  Water for Elephants.  Kite Runner. I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read.  I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about.  There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers.  This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the decline of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages.  For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.

Joshua Henkin is the author, most recently, of the novel MATRIMONY, which was a 2007 New York Times Notable Book, a Book Sense Pick, and a Borders Original Voices Selection.  If you would like Josh to participate in your book group discussion, you can contact him through his website,, or email him directly at