Monday, February 4, 2013

Book groups: An author's best friend, or worst enemy

Most of the book clubs mentioned here over the past two years continue to meet; people love to read, and to talk about the books they’ve discovered. Since women comprise many groups, we suspect the camaraderie also has a lot to do with it. Even when the subject is serious, discussions are entertaining. But there’s a marketing relationship at play in all this.
What sparks interest in a topic is a strong reflection of the book’s strength as a “hot” seller, a classic or an indie favorite. And while book clubs can be an author’s best friend, the reverse may also be true—every field has its Lance Armstrongs, who may find themselves left on the deserted end of the bookshelf before they even know the fans have turned on them.
People join clubs to explore worlds they care about, to learn more about the world they live in, and to extend a book’s vicarious life when the last page has been turned. It’s not unusual to find people belonging to multiple clubs, some dedicated to the classics, others to mystery or sci-fi topics, and so on. Even though best-sellers interest some book groups, those groups can make or break an author’s reputation. Why? Because discussions have a way of ferreting out a book’s weaknesses, and once those weaknesses become known to enough people, a writer’s popularity may flag, or be limited to a special-interest group of readers.
Consider, for instance: conversations can take the high road: Gatsby’s search for power, and his relationship with Daisy, another man’s wife, symbolizes all that was—and is—morally corrupt among those with an excess of wealth and a deficit of conscience.
Yes, well, umm … There’s also the earthy road, such as: The only thing I liked about “50 Shades of Gray” is that Star-Trek guy’s reading of it—“Oh Myyy” is right! (George Takei, actually.)
Book group members are vocal about their choices, and sharing their opinions online. What they are saying reflects more widespread thinking, and buying patterns, which may well signal an upward, or downward, spiral for a genre or author. And, while publishers do get away with splashing their favorites across book stores windows, and selling thousands of them, the market is fickle, and easily led elsewhere. The deep readers—engaged in a book’s life and linked to an author’s readership—aren’t going to be fooled.
For instance: More than once lately, I’ve heard complaints about the headline-robbing novel (or the non-fiction version of it). True crime has turned many writers, such as Jodi Picoult and Nancy Grace, into household names. Admittedly, they write well have thousands of fans. But readers are tiring of the format—for indeed, what else is it?—approach to fiction. Not helping is the publishing world’s tendency to saturate the market with wanna-be best-sellers that parrot a really good one. (And they do sell, while it’s hot.) There are even novels by Richard Castle—a fictional character on television. (Tip: the real author is one of the people who’ve guest-starred on the show “Castle.” Offhand, I can think of several: Dennis Lehane, James Patterson, Michael Connelly, Stephen Cannell. Interesting possibilities there.)
More negatively, fans were quick to jump Picoult, whose work I once enjoyed, for flagrantly using much of the plot line to Stephen King’s “The Green Mile” in her “Change of Heart.” King once praised Picoult’s “brilliance,” but I wonder how he felt about this novel, whose resemblance to King’s work she glibly cites in the story! I’m hearing more and more people say “been there, done that” in regard to this wonderful writer’s books. She would do well to heed their words. That said, she is a terrific writer, and engages her audience so completely in fiction and in person, I have no doubt she can do that.
Let’s pan this camera over to the afore-mentioned James Patterson, whose stable of writers kicks out close to one best-seller a month. Admittedly, millions of people buy them. But are they worth a plug nickel in terms of quality or content? Do they ever enter new territory or challenge intellect? Nah … they fulfill another, and a very valid, readership requirement: entertainment. Patterson’s not seeking a literary award—he’s selling entertainment. He doesn’t need the clubs, and they don’t need him. Mutual distance kept.
Sometimes, reader fatigue plays into those decisions. Book groups are notoriously moody and at times fickle when they select upcoming reads. I doubt any member has not heard the words: “too depressing,” “too long” or “we’ve read enough about that this year.” Our group recently removed Erik Larson’s moving “In the Garden of the Beast (subtitle: Love, terror and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin)” from its list, because they had already discussed Jenna Blum’s “Those Who Save Us” and other war-related books and wanted a break, as well as fresh topics. I’ll read it on my own.
What’s up in the regional book groups:
On the first or last Thursday of each month, Reading, Sharing and Laughing meets at Fitchburg’s neat little coffeehouse, Chaibo, located on 37 Boulder Drive (parking across the street). There is a meeting this week, at 7 p.m. Thursday (Jan. 31) to discuss Kathleen Winsor’s classic, “Forever Amber.” The book is a memorable bit of historical fiction, set in 17th-century England.
O’Connor’s Books, Brews and Banter Reading Group meets Feb. 27 at the Westborough restaurant at 6:30 p.m. to discuss “Defending Jacob” by William Landay. Newcomers can join the group by going to Andrew Pessin, author of “The Second Daughter” will attend the Sunday, March 17 meeting, 1 p.m.
Shrewsbury’s Panera Bread Book Group will meet at 1 p.m., Feb. 10, to discuss “The End of Your Life Book Club” by Will Schwalbe.
The Women’s Issues Book Club meets at 7 p.m. on the second Monday, monthly, at Barnes & Noble  Booksellers, 541 Lincoln St., Worcester. To join the mailing list, contact On Feb. 11, members will discuss “The Postmistress,” by Sarah Blake, a story set in coastal Massachusetts during World War II, dealing with how war touches the lives of ordinary people.
Audio Journal’s “Speaking Volumes” is a call-in book group airing the first Tuesday of each month at 8 p.m. Listen live at  for a discussion of “Catherine the Great” by Robert K. Massie. In March, the topic is Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”
The Douglas Library Book Discussion Group will discuss James Fenimore Cooper’s famous “The Deerslayer” on Tuesday, Feb. 12, at 6:30 p.m. Set during the French and Indian wars. Call the library, 508-476-2695, for a copy of the book. New members welcome. Members plan to serve refreshments inspired by the book.
Ann Connery Frantz writes about book groups and books at (intentionally misspelled). If there is a topic of interest to your group, email her at