"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

It's all fun and games until someone gets poked in the ego

In the last half of my interview with Marsha Toy Engstrom, Book Club Cheerleader Extraordinaire, we discuss what happens when a good book club goes bad, plus, what's on the horizon for our Pom Pom Queen.

Did you ever have a disappointing session with a book or club members?
One time the group chose a book that no one liked. We found it sophomoric, shallow, and basically not worthy of reading. Not wanting to waste our discussion time together, we took the book’s theme—college campuses—and turned our discussion into a more personal girls’ chat about our own college experiences. We talked of life lessons, lost loves, and our own coming of age stories. It was a discussion that brought up a lot of funny anecdotes, and some surprises (You streaked where?) and helped us see a different side of our fellow group members. Many members have commented that they believe this meeting had a strong impact toward bringing our group closer together.

How do you recover from a toxic group?
I’ve heard of—but fortunately have never experienced—a downright toxic group session. Not to say that all meetings I’ve ever attended have been sunshine and roses. When a group builds a safe environment, true disagreement and different perspectives are not only tolerated, but encouraged. The varying opinions make for a rich discussion. That’s why many reading groups love to discuss controversial books—such as those written by Jodi Picoult. The key is to maintain respect for the differing opinions. A club can outlaw personal attacks in their Code of Conduct by writing a ground rule something like, “Focus on the issue, not the person.” I have been in groups in which the conflict caused more tension than was truly healthy. In those cases, the facilitator or another group member can simply remind offending members of the ground rules, and reassure them that they are encouraged to state their own opinion as long as they don’t belittle or disrespect another person’s opinion. Conflict—done properly—should encourage better dialogue, thinking, and understanding. Those are all critical to a winning book club. ‘Group-think’ is a Glamour ‘Don’t’!

Will there be a Book Club Cheerleader book out someday to help us boring people?
I am working on a book—its working title is Celebrating Book Clubs: The Book Club Cheerleader’s Guide to Building a Winning Book Club. But it’s not to help “the boring.” Like my website, it is designed to help book clubs maximize the energy they already have in their groups by allowing them to focus on the three aspects of The People, The Fun, and The Book. Many groups focus only on The Book. But I’ve seen too many book clubs fizzle out before their time because they didn’t pay attention to the group dynamics of their club.

Like my website, Celebrating Book Clubs will give readers tips to take care of their fellow members by making them feel important and involved, and teach groups some techniques for making better group decisions. It will also give book clubs ideas for fun activities and games, while keeping the book as the center of their celebration. One chapter will walk new book clubbers through holding their first meeting, while another chapter will give reading groups some turn-key party productions that are ready to be plucked from the book (for those with less time or energy.) But readers can also use these ideas simply as jumping platforms to prime the pump of their own creativity.

When you read a book do you need:
- a likeable protagonist?
I used to believe that if you could not like the main character, the book had no chance of holding your attention. However, I’ve found—at least for myself—that if the author can make you have some sympathy or respect for the protagonist, you don’t necessarily have to like him or her personally. For example, when our group read Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris, I did not like Framboise, the main character. I found her gruff, self-centered, and unfriendly. However, Ms. Harris was able to help me see Framboise’s side of the issues, so that even if I did not agree with her, I could understand her. So I guess the real issue is that a skilled writer can work wonders—and Joanne is a master at her craft!

- a great opening line?
Everyone loves a great opening line—but that doesn’t necessarily make the rest of the book great. Remembering Nancy Pearl’s “50-page rule”, the author needs to hook you—not just in the opening line—but in the opening chapters. That being said, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity… " Now Dickens knew how to write a brilliant opening line—and back it up with a great book!

- the promise of hot sex scenes?
I remember reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover in college and thinking it was even hotter than Rosemary Rogers’s latest offering. Looking back, I realize, rather than reading great literature, I was enjoying a stand-in romance with a novel between real boyfriends. I now laugh at the Literary Review’s “Bad Sex in Fiction Award”—since that could’ve been my college major! Apparently, Auberon Waugh established this award "with the aim of gently dissuading authors and publishers from including unconvincing, perfunctory, embarrassing or redundant passages of a sexual nature in otherwise sound literary novels." I guess that last portion of the passage, “otherwise sound literary novel” can take out a bit of the sting for those authors who ‘win’ the award. Surprisingly this has included such household names as John Updike, Thomas Wolfe, and Norman Mailer. The former won for ‘lifetime achievement.’

So, what I believe makes an ideal book club read is a creative, well-written story (Fiction or Nonfiction) with character development, conflict and tension, controversial subjects, and a plot that moves appropriately forward (without either dragging or racing). If you find such a gem—please let me know! (Gayle's note: Try Freezer Burn!) For a list of my book club favorites, please check out the bottom of the Celebrating Books page at

Rah, Rah, Reading!

Rah, Rah, exactly, Marsha! Good luck spreading your message, "They come for the Book, they stay for the Fun, and they leave if you screw up the People part."


Anonymous said...

Enjoyed this chat with Marsha. I'm of the same opinions with regard to the virtues of the protagonist, also.

The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog

Karen Brees said...

Wow! So many topics here it's difficult to pull one out. Think I'll comment on the Book Club. Our strategy is to have revolving leaders - when you host the month's meeting, you get to pick the book and lead the discussion. Everybody gets a list of questions beforehand and that helps keep stuff civil.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I enjoyed reading this interview. I also liked the reminder that even if the entire club hated a book, it can still lead to interesting discussion.

Great redesign of your blog, by the way!

Mystery Writing is Murder

C. Margery Kempe said...

Excellent interview and a lot of fun. Some of these are things we really obsess over as writers, alright.

Jina Bacarr said...

Fascinating "behind the scenes" look at how book clubs work. Great interview!

The Berlin Sex Diary of Lady Eve Marlowe

N A Sharpe said...

That was a great interview! In the book clubs I have belonged to we vote on the books we want to read. So far it has worked well.

Good post!

Nancy, from Just a Thought…

Enid Wilson said...

Wow, I didn't know that such delicate issues occur in a book club too. I guess I have to attend one to see the group dynamic. Great interview.

Steamy Darcy

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