By Kathleen Ernst
I’ve visited a handful of book groups since my first Chloe Ellefson mystery came out two years ago, and usually have a good time. I’ve participated in some lively discussions with readers who held a variety of opinions about my work. That’s what makes book groups interesting, right? If everyone agreed about every aspect of a novel…well, yawn.
But "lively" can go wrong. A group once invited me to join their discussion of one of my titles. Almost everyone told me they liked the book. If they had questions to raise, they did so graciously.
Then I got clobbered.
A couple of people were not so gracious. One man summarized his thoughts: “Your book was nothing but empty words on paper.” (Yes, that’s an exact quote.)
In fairness, I know it’s a tricky thing to invite an author to attend a book club. People in these groups are used to having honest discussions about their reactions to a book. I know in my own book group, we don’t hesitate to be blunt about aspects of any work that we don’t care for.
So is it reasonable to expect a group to automatically know how to switch gears? How to leap into a discussion in a totally new way on those rare occasions when the author is present?
Honestly, I think that’s a lot to ask.
So I’d like to respectfully suggest a few pointers for anyone considering inviting an author to attend a book group’s discussion of her work:
1. Even if your group usually proceeds in free-for-all fashion, determine a moderator in advance—someone who can step in if the conversation goes off-track.
2. Start the conversation by providing the author with positive feedback. And if you can, be specific. Did you like the pacing, the depth of characterization, the language? Let the author know. It will mean a lot.
3. When you raise a point about something that did not work well for you, try to phrase it as a question. “What your character did in chapter four makes no sense” doesn’t leave any room for discussion. “Why did your character make the choices she did in chapter four?” does. I’ve facilitated a whole lot of book discussions, and I promise that this suggestion alone will make an enormous difference in the tone of the conversation.
4. Give the author a chance to respond. When a reader poses an unexpected question for me, I sometimes need a moment to collect my thoughts. Don’t arrive with a written list of criticisms in hand and rattle through them at machine-gun speed.
5. As with positive feedback, be specific. Vague statements like that “empty words on paper” line aren’t helpful in any way.
6. End on a positive note. Circle back to things the group liked about the book. Give the author a chance to share whatever visuals or other goodies she might have brought. Express appreciation for the author’s time.
So, what am I missing? What suggestions for book group members would you add to my list? How about suggestions for the visiting author? I’d love to hear your thoughts!