Wednesday, October 30, 2013
When an author visits your book club...
By Sandra Parshall
The burden of book promotion falls mostly on authors these days, and we’re all looking for new ways to reach readers. A lot of us are willing to talk by telephone or Skype with small book discussion clubs, or appear in person if the group is within a reasonable distance.
Sometimes it’s a rewarding experience, a chance to talk about our books with dedicated readers who want to explore themes, plots, character motivations, and everything that goes into creating a fictional world. If we’re lucky, we’ll make new fans who will buy our future books and recommend our work to friends. At the very least, we’ve had a good time.
But occasionally a book club meeting feels like a verbal mugging, with the writer as the invited victim.
Most of the groups I’ve met with have been great. Recently I had an experience, though, that was almost enough to make me swear off book clubs forever. And I’ve heard stories from writer friends about the times they’ve gone out of their way to attend meetings, only to spend an hour or more holding their tongues while a group of strangers trashed their books.
A Facebook thread on this topic brought an outpouring of comments from authors, readers, and librarians about what mystery writer Robert Walker called “get-the-author syndrome.” Everyone agreed that an invited writer should be treated like any guest, with courtesy, and hitting him or her with a barrage of complaints is rude and hurtful.
I’ve distilled those comments and my own observations into a few guidelines for book clubs that invite authors to their meetings. If your group is the slash-and-burn type that delights in shredding the work, egos, and hearts of writers, nothing I say will alter your treatment of guests. But the majority of readers are considerate people, and I hope those who fall into that category will take this as a helpful dispatch from the other side of the writer-reader divide.
If most of your group members dislike the book, don’t ask the author to be present while you discuss it.
Face it: If you dislike a book and have any consideration for other people’s feelings, you won’t speak as freely with the author present as you could in a private meeting.
You have a perfect right to hate a novel and tear it apart, if that’s the kind of “discussion” you enjoy. Out of common courtesy, you shouldn’t expect the author to sit and listen, in person or on the telephone.
The longtime co-leader of a mystery book club told me, “We don't invite authors of books that the majority of the group haven't cared for. However, we have never trashed an author even in absentia for her/his choices... When the group doesn't like a book, we determine why; writing, subject, location, interactions, whatever.” She added that if a group does nothing but criticize a book, “they don't understand the reason to have a book group.”
Remember that the author is your guest and behave accordingly.
Treat the author as a guest speaker. Let her talk a bit about the book, what inspired her to write it, what she hoped to accomplish with it.
With crime fiction in particular, you have many things to focus on: the story’s themes, the level of suspense, the plotting, the villain’s motives, the relationships between suspects and the victim(s), the protagonist’s motivation for solving the mystery and the way he/she goes about it. Ask questions about things that puzzle or displease you, but do it politely, and always respect the author’s choices. Don’t argue and insist the book should have been written differently. She has poured a year or more of her life into this work, and she hasn’t come to hear how you would have written her novel.
The book is finished and published. It was probably reviewed favorably, or you wouldn’t have chosen to read it. It is what it is, and the author won’t rewrite it and put out a new edition to please you. Announcing aggressively that you hated some aspect of it isn’t likely to generate an enlightening discussion. Ask what led the writer to make the choices she did and why she felt the story had to go in that direction.
If the novel has been widely praised by other readers, as well as professional writers and respected reviewers, perhaps you should try to understand why instead of telling the writer that everybody else was wrong and your negative opinion is the correct one. Maybe it’s simply not your sort of book and you shouldn’t have read it in the first place.
Amy Benabou, a librarian with Virginia Beach Public Libraries, said that in her 30-plus years of working in a public library, hosting many authors and currently facilitating a book discussion group, she has never witnessed anyone saying anything rude to a guest author. She believes that no one should expect a writer to turn up just to be bullied.
Remember that attacking the protagonist may feel like a personal attack on the author.
For many – probably most – writers, the creation of a lead character is deeply personal. A book’s hero or heroine comes from a more intimate part of the author’s heart and mind than other characters may. Writers live with their protagonists day and night, in some cases for many years, and feel close to them. There’s a reason many writers call their protagonists their children or their best friends or their alter egos, the people they wish they could be.
Don’t launch a “discussion” by flatly declaring, as someone did of my protagonist, that you disliked the lead character from the start and liked her less and less as the book went on, that you found her cold and selfish and didn’t understand any of her actions, that you “wanted to shake her” for doing some of the things she did, and you thought she was a poor choice for a protagonist because she was totally unsympathetic.
How is an author supposed to respond to such a breathtakingly rude statement? Frankly, she’d be justified in telling you to go to hell, then walking out. Stop and ask yourself: If you were in the writer’s shoes, how would you react to a group of strangers saying such things directly to you?
Instead, perhaps you should come up with courteous questions about the character’s motivation, the events in her life that have shaped her, how the author views her, how the character’s actions move the story forward or create conflict, and how her experiences during the story have changed her. You might also ask yourself why other readers and reviewers like and admire the character you detest.
A book club meeting with the author present can be fun and informative on both sides – but only if the group recognizes that writers are human beings with feelings, people who take pride in their work, and expect to be treated that way.
If you hate a book, that’s your right. Tear it to pieces in your meeting if that’s your inclination. But leave the author out of it. She has better things to do with her time, such as staying at home and working on her next novel.