I know why I joined one, and, frankly, I’m trying to compare my own experiences to those of others, see if I can find some common ground. Answer some questions that have popped up over the last few months. Like, do men join book clubs? Do all clubs read the same kinds of books?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me start with why I joined a book club in the first place. In a way, it’s because I both read too much, and not enough. As a fantasy writer, my percentages probably break down something like this: 40% fantasy; 20% SF; 20% crime and mystery; 20% research and related materials (such as posts in Black Gate magazine).
That’s probably not entirely accurate, but it’s close enough to have made me feel that my reading was getting narrower than it has been in the past; maybe I was getting a little too comfortable and stuck in my ways, maybe I needed to shake things up. I think I was looking for the type of experience that’s often found in university and college, where there’s so much required reading, and so much that’s possibly outside of the student’s comfort zone.
Keeping in mind that outside of one’s comfort zone is a place writers often need to be.
And for me, “outside of my comfort zone” basically means non-genre books. I used to have to read a lot of them for university – mostly 300 year old stuff, but still. I haven’t done much non-genre reading in a long while, and I thought perhaps I’d give it a try. So I joined a book club attended by a friend of mine, another PhD, though hers is in epidemiology, and for the most part I’ve been having a good time.
The social element didn’t surprise me, after all, 80% of university is social element. It’s interesting to hear other people’s takes on things that they may or may not have “liked,” and it’s stimulating to have to explain or defend your own views when you’re challenged.
On the whole I’ve enjoyed the books so far, but there were three particular disappointments. All three were books chosen by the club on my suggestion, after I had read reviews about them, so I’m not stepping on anyone’s toes here – though perhaps I’m wondering whether I’m all that good at judging a book based only on reviews.
The first is Station Eleven, by Emily St John Mandel. After reading the reviews I chose the book because it was a post-apocalyptic novel (and so not too far outside my wheelhouse) that wasn’t a dystopia, and ended on a hopeful note. That’s so often not the case nowadays that I was intrigued. Unfortunately the reviews were so positive that I was expecting a heart breaking work of staggering genius (say, like Gene Wolfe), and what I got was only a well-written book. There’s some innovation (absolutely no one’s to blame for the catastrophe, for example), but from the perspective of a regular genre reader, there’s also a lot of very, perhaps overly, familiar stuff.
O Henry Prize Short Stories, I thought. What could go wrong, I thought? That was before I knew that all the “winners” are chosen by the same person. So this isn’t really a contest, where the prizes are awarded by a jury of judges, it’s just a reprint anthology selected by one editor. So all the stories are playing the same note, if you see what I mean. And surprisingly, considering the editor is a woman, they’re filled with stories of passive and victimized females. Which, I sadly suppose, might also classify as overly familiar stuff.
The last one I’m going to mention is The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. I was intrigued by the time period of the setting, post WWI. I’m familiar with that era through books written at the time (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Marjorie Allingham), and I’m pleased that the early part of the 20th century is now long enough ago to be considered “historical” – it was not always so.
What was wrong with this one? You don’t expect to be saying to yourself “Oh my god we get it, move on” when reading a book by someone who’s been nominated so many times for the Mann Booker prize, that’s what.
I think I have to conclude that I I wasn’t disappointed by the level of writing, but by the level of storytelling. After all, I don’t read things that are badly written no matter what genre they’re in – and no matter which of my friends may have written them.
So, are any of you members of book clubs? If so, what do you read? Are there Fantasy and SF book clubs?
Or are cons our community’s cultural equivalent of the phenomenon? I’d really like to know.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures (now available in omnibus editions), as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she is writing the upcoming Halls of Law series. Visit her website: www.violettemalan.com.