Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Book Clubs —The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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!


Shannon Baker said...

Yikes, Kathleen! That was a harsh thing to say. So rude! Sorry about that.

Lois Winston said...

Totally obnoxious person. You don't invite someone to your home/party/book club, then rip them to shreds. This guy obviously had a chip on his shoulder. Maybe he'd been trying for years to get his own books published without success.

Alan Orloff said...

I'm with Lois. That guy might have been envious. I'm sure you handled it well (and now you have a victim for your next book!)

Beth Groundwater said...

I think that book club was downright rude! If you invite an author to a book club, the last thing you should do is insult him or her. If the book club wants to have an open and honest discussion about an invited author's book, they should do it before the author arrives at the meeting and ask the author to come 45 minutes or so after the start of the meeting. The time with the author should be spent asking questions and discussing how s/he wrote the book, made plot decisions, etc. No insults!

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for the moral support!

Most of the group members were lovely, and most were as stunned as I was by that particular comment. I think nobody knew quite what to do at that point...which is why I hoped that some thoughts about preparing for a conversation would be helpful.

Hunting Violets (Resa Haile) said...

I was curious if you asked him what he meant. That could have gotten it more into a discussion mode again.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Resa, asking him for some clarification would have been a very good idea--and as you said, might have opened up an actual conversation. But at that moment, I didn't think quickly enough to be able to do so. That's part of what I've been thinking about as I prepared this post. It's tricky--on both sides-- to know how to handle something as potentially sensitive as a discussion of an author's work. If something like this happens again, I hope I'll be better prepared.

And I must stress-of course I don't expect all readers to love my every word! Framing the conversation is what I'm working on, that's all.

cncbooks said...

Kathleen, that guy was apparently one of the insufferable people who show up in our lives now and again. Your tips for book clubs are good ones. On the other side of the coin, my club recently hosted several local authors with an anthology and one woman, who moved to our area 12 years ago, proceeded to trash our city and its inhabitants, especially native-born like me. Besides wanting to ask why she still lives here---out of courtesy, I did not engage her in debate---I thought this was unbelievably rude and uncalled for (it was not generated by anyone else's remarks). Guess whose work I'll never buy again?

Lelia Taylor

Kathleen Ernst said...

Lelia, thanks for sharing that unfortunate experience. Good manners and common courtesy need to go in both directions. (What was the author you mentioned thinking?)

I've attended a signing or two where I left with a similar impression. It's disconcerting to be excited about an author's work until you actually meet the author--and wish you hadn't. Authors who chastise readers for purchasing a paperback instead of a hardcover, or who can hardly be bothered to summon a smile, etc., etc. ...well, that's the subject of another post!