Archive Page 2

07
Oct
08

“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.

* * * *

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, http://www.joshuahenkin.com, or email him directly at Jhenkin@SLC.edu.

01
Oct
08

What is the bge literary salon?

The Literary Salon concept appeared first in 15th century Venice when an elite group of women began gathering informally to talk about literature, politics, science, and art.  The French picked it up about a century later and, as the French do so well, made it extremely fashionable.  These gatherings were so informal that they were frequently held in the bedroom, where the hostess would lead the discussion — once her friends clustered around on chairs and stools — from a reclining position in her bed.  I am passionately devoted to reviving this custom, and I await the day when Ann Kent, book group expo’s founder, gives us the go-ahead.

Until then, we’re committed to creating an ambience of intimacy in bge’s literary salons.  Each one — this year there are 20 — is meant to reflect the more relaxed book group experience, where conversation is predominant.  Book group readers love to talk as well as they love to listen.  To that end, our moderators open up to questions and comments from the audience only about fifteen minutes into the hour-long salon rather than follow the common “lecture” or “interview” format where the audience is given a rushed few minutes at the end.  This precipitates a discussion or “group conversation” that reflects a particular audience’s interests and it helps the authors feel less like they are performing.

In this photo from last year, authors Elizabeth Gilbert, Po Bronson, and Sara Davidson are probably being amused by one of moderator Sam Barry’s bon mots, which is to say that he’s doing what he does best:  cracking them up.  All three of these authors had written books involving inspirational journeys.  Kathi Goldmark, our Author Liaison and Maven of Clever Salon Titles, called this one “What a Long Strange Trip It’s Been”.

All of our salons are topic-centered, so the conversation is not only about the books of each author, but about a topic that each of their books addresses in some way.  Some of this years’ topics are marriage, grief, strong women, and the definition of virtue.  The Expo is a two-day event with an opening salon each day at 10:00 am (doors open at 9:00 am) and 9 more salons running until 4:00 pm (doors close at 5:30).  There are three salon locations, which means that 3 salons occur at the same time for the rest of each day.  Click here to see the full schedule so you can get a head start on choosing which ones you’d like to attend.

In this photo from last year, Khaled Hosseini and I are smiling at an amusing comment from the audience.  Don’t ask me to remember exactly what.  As usual, I’m hiding my toothy smile.  No, Khaled and I did not coordinate colors before this Friday evening salon, but we each noticed that our blues matched perfectly.  Naturally, we complimented one another on our fashion taste.  I’m just glad y’all can see his face; he has a simpatico face.  Not like many doctors I’ve known.  Must be the storyteller in him.

12
Sep
08

October 2008 list of authors

You can find a comprehensive list of our October 2008 authors, their photos, web links, and bios on our website, but if you want to see all of their names in one fell swoop, here are all 77 of them next to the title of their most recent book:

1.    Karen Abbott, SIN IN THE SECOND CITY
2.    Doug Abrams, THE LOST DIARY OF DON JUAN
3.    Melanie Abrams, PLAYING
4.    Rabih Alameddine, THE HAKAWATI
5.    Maggie Anton, RASHI’S DAUGHTERS
6.    Annie Barrows, THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL SOCIETY
7.    Brunonia Barry, THE LACE READER
8.    Erica Bauermeister, THE SCHOOL OF ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS
9.    Kristin Billerbeck, THE TROPHY WIVES CLUB
10.    Catherine Brady, CURLED IN THE BED OF LOVE
11.    Janelle Brown, ALL I EVER WANTED WAS EVERYTHING
12.    Sylvia Brownrigg, MORALITY TALE
13.    Ron Carlson, FIVE SKIES
14.    Jennifer Lee Carrell, INTERRED WITH THEIR BONES
15.    Margaret Cezair-Thompson, THE PIRATE’S DAUGHTER
16.    Brian Copeland, NOT A GENUINE BLACK MAN
17.    David Corbett, BLOOD OF PARADISE
18.    Marisa de los Santos, BELONG TO ME
19.    Frances Dinkelspiel, TOWERS OF GOLD
20.    Andre Dubus, THE GARDEN OF LAST DAYS
21.    Will Durst, THE ALL-AMERICAN SPORT OF BIPARTISAN BASHING
22.    Selden Edwards, THE LITTLE BOOK
23.    Zoe Ferraris, FINDING NOUF
24.    Susan Freinkel, AMERICAN CHESTNUT
25.    Jane Ganahl, NAKED ON THE PAGE
26.    Leah Garchik, REAL LIFE ROMANCE
27.    Paola Gianturco, WOMEN WHO LIGHT THE DARK
28.    Julia Glass, I SEE YOU EVERYWHERE
29.    Jeff Golden, UNAFRAID
30.    Herbert Gold, STILL ALIVE
31.    Kathi Kamen Goldmark, AND MY SHOES KEEP WALKING BACK TO YOU
32.    C.W. Gortner, THE LAST QUEEN
33.    Susan Griffin, WRESTLING WITH THE ANGEL OF DEMOCRACY
34.    Moira Gunn, WELCOME TO BIOTECH NATION
35.    Masha Hamilton, THE CAMEL BOOKMOBILE
36.    Diane Hammond, HANNAH’S DREAM
37.    Haider Ala Hamoudi, HOWLING IN MESOPOTAMIA
38.    Jason Headley, SMALL TOWN ODDS
39.    Joshua Henkin, MATRIMONY
40.    James D. Houston, WHERE LIGHT TAKES ITS COLOR FROM THE SEA, BIRD OF ANOTHER HEAVEN
41.    Susan Ito, A GHOST AT HEART’S EDGE
42.    Kate Jacobs, THE FRIDAY NIGHT KNITTING CLUB
43.    Lauren Zina John, RUNNING BOOK GROUP DISCUSSIONS
44.    Van Jones, THE GREEN COLLAR ECONOMY
45.    Mildred Armstrong Kalish, LITTLE HEATHENS
46.    Jeanne Kalogridis, THE BORGIA BRIDE
47.    Cynthia Katona, BOOK SAVVY
48.    Kathleen Kent, THE HERETIC’S DAUGHTER
49.    Julie Klam, PLEASE EXCUSE MY DAUGTHER
50.    Deborah Copaken Kogan, BETWEEN HERE AND APRIL
51.    Erika Mailman, THE WITCH’S TRINITY
52.    Maud Carol Markson, WHEN WE GET HOME
53.    Reed Martin, THE REDUCED SHAKESPEARE
54.    Jana McBurney-Lin, MY HALF OF THE SKY
55.    Terry McMillan, THE INTERRUPTION OF EVERYTHING
56.    Christina Meldrum, MADAPPLE
57.    Toni Mirosevich, PINK HARVEST
58.    Nicole Mones, THE LAST CHINESE CHEF
59.    John Nathan, LIVING CARELESSLY IN TOKYO AND ELSEWHERE
60.    Bich Minh Nguyen, STEALING BUDDHA’S DINNER
61.    Ann Packer, SONGS WITHOUT WORDS
62.    Susanne Pari, THE FORTUNE CATCHER
63.    Michelle Richmond, NO ONE YOU KNOW
64.     Mary Roach, BONK
65.    Kemble Scott, SOMA
66.    David Sheff, BEAUTIFUL BOY
67.    Jennie Shortridge, LOVE AND BIOLOGY AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
68.    Julia Flynn Siler, THE HOUSE OF MONDAVI
69.    Diana Spechler, WHO BY FIRE
70.    Garth Stein, THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN
71.    Elizabeth Strout, OLIVE KITTERIDGE
72.    Ellen Sussman, DIRTY WORDS
73.    Austin Titchenor, THE REDUCED SHAKESPEARE
74.    Gail Tsukiyama, THE STREET OF A THOUSAND BLOSSOMS
75.    Marilyn Yalom, THE AMERICAN RESTING PLACE
76.    Irvin Yalom, STARING AT THE SUN: OVERCOMING THE TERROR OF DEATH
77.    Victoria Zackheim, FOR KEEPS