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.


Lev Raphael said...

Absolutely terrific! I had a dreadful experience at a local book group where the leader, a man, seemed to want to show the women in the group how tough he was. It was grotesque.

Dru said...

great article and excellent points.

Kristopher said...

When I was running a book club, we often had author visits/calls and never would we have thought to treat the author with anything less than the respect that he/she deserves (everyone deserves).

Book clubs are intended (at least in concept) to be a place to discuss a work in further depth than most people typically do alone. Sure, it's fine to discuss things that didn't "work" for you or that you didn't understand. That's why if you are luck enough to have the author present, you ask questions to better understand.

In the end, you may still not agree. Most authors will understand that, but they shouldn't need to put on a Kevlar vest to attend you meeting.

Donna Andrews said...

I've never quite understood why a book group would want to have the author present in the first place. Isn't the whole purpose of a book group to provide a place for free discussion of the book? In which case, if the members are at all civil, wouldn't having the author present make it more difficult for those who did not like the book to voice their feelings? Unless of course it was a book group like the one you describe, where civility clearly wasn't the goal. Your experience has enabled me to articulate why I am reluctant to go to book groups. Even after 20 books, I don't think I want to risk ever facing that kind of hostility and incivility.

Vicki Lane said...

So well put, Sandy! I've visited many book clubs, mostly in person, and have been treated like everything from a star to a paid entertainer to a punching bag to another book-loving friend (my favorite.)

Some book clubs seem to exist as an excuse for a social occasion -- the members may or may not have actually read the book. I spoke once at a combined meeting of three book clubs and two women came in, sat in the back, and talked to each other all through my presentation. I was SO close to asking them to leave.

My favorite groups are those who really love talking about books -- we talk about my books and then get on to recommending other favorite writers to one another.

The very first book club I ever did were a large friendly group who had fixed a meal based on a meal in SIGNS IN THE BLOOD. They were enthusiastic and complimentary but at some point they let me know that most of them didn't much like Phillip -- the romantic interest -- and thought that Elizabeth should at least have had a fling with the snake-handling preacher.

It was criticism but it was said in such a way that I could understand their point. And I worked very hard in the following books to make Phillip more likeable (if not as sexy as a snake-handling, Elvis-eyed preacher.)

Kaye Wilkinson Barley - Meanderings and Muses said...

Sandra Parshall - I cannot begin to imagine how this made you feel. I know it hurt, and I'm sure it made you angry. But the depth of those feelings are unimaginable. I know you felt as though you could not "shoot back," and to me, that would have made it so much harder to take. I'm not one for biting my tongue and I'm sure my words would have had these rude, ill-bred people scurrying to their computers and telephones to spread the word - so be it. I do hope you'll let other writers know who this group was so they can avoid the same fate. It's the most classless, clueless thing I've ever heard a book group do and they should be ashamed.

Anonymous said...

Sandy, I agree with Kaye's comments and am appalled that this kind of situation exists!!!! Most people who criticize like that are insecure about their own talents and behave like bullies, whether in a group or as an individual! Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Sandra Parshall said...

One local book group has discussed two of my books with me as a guest, and I will happily go back anytime they want me. These people -- about 15 members -- really get down to the bones of a story and talk about characters as if they know them personally. They talk about relationships, motivations, underlying themes, all the things authors hope readers will appreciate. In such a friendly atmosphere, it's easier for a writer to hear that someone didn't care for this or that character or wish the villain had met a worse fate. (You know, writers don't necessarily love all their own characters either.) What I don't like is the kind of reader who seems personally offended that I dared to write something she doesn't like and expects me to either apologize or justify myself. That's her problem, not mine. She's free to read somebody else's books.

Jeri Westerson said...

I've never experienced that yet, Sandy. I've been in groups when I could tell some had a problem with this or that aspect of the story, but they've always done as you suggest: frame it in such a way as to be civil and relevant. "Why did you make the choice of...?"

I say if it gets too uncivil, simply get up and walk out, explaining that for this kind of discussion, the author certainly doesn't have to be present.

Charlaine Harris said...

It's horribly unpleasant to be the author in such a situation. It's difficult to know how to react to avoid descending to the level of the (vicious) critic. While we all want to write perfect books, we all know that's hardly possible, and we need to brace ourselves for negative remarks; but critics need to realize they can talk about things they didn't enjoy about your work in a manner that doesn't come across as a personal attack.

Alice Duncan said...

I'm so sorry this happened to you, Sandra. I don't understand why that group invited you if they didn't like your book. Our books are so personal and, sure, not everyone in the world will like our books, but why invite an author to a book discussion when the group KNOWS the author and/or her book is going to be trashed. Sounds like sadism to me, and I do not approve (not that my opinion counts for anything).

Sandra Parshall said...

I would be flat-out amazed (and a lot richer) if everybody who read my books loved them. As I said in the blog, readers are perfectly entitled to their opinions and reading preferences. What I hate is being cornered (with no warning) and expected to defend myself for having written something that somebody didn't like. The world is full of books! There's something for everybody. My book isn't to your taste? Move on! It's just another book to you. It's a great deal more than that to me.

But this isn't just about me. I've heard enough horror stories to know this has happened to plenty of writers. I think it's just plain bad manners to invite someone into your group, then proceed to bully him or her.

Diane said...

I would say that these people are confused about the difference between a book discussion group and a writer's group. The first is to read an already published work and discuss details about what those members gained from reading it. The second is a group of writers, published or not, who give suggestions to fellow members on how to improve story lines in their works-in-progress. Neither kind of group calls for nasty and rude behavior by the members.

Book clubs who behave in such a negative and vicious way makes me wonder about something: how many have members [friends] in their group who are either writers themselves who have been unable to get their work published, or have had them published and had minimum success getting readers? Because that kind of behavior sounds like jealousy. Maybe instead of trashing the work of a successful author, they should be asking themselves why their work has either not been published or why - if published - it hasn't done well.

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sandra,
Excellent article. You've confirmed all my fears about book clubs. And Diane's point is well taken: That's why I don't participate in critique groups either. I've been thinking of finding a few beta readers, but that's something entirely different.
What I noticed, Sandra, is that a lot of your advice also translates one-for-one to the relationship between reviewers and reviewees of books (I guess the second isn't a word, but should be). I'm amazed at the number of reviewers that set out to trash a book, but maybe that percentage is high relative to all reviewers because most readers don't have the time to write reviews, even if they like the book.
But maybe this discussion just reflects that proper decorum is rapidly disappearing from our society's social discourse?

Deborah Sharp said...

yikes!! that book club sounds like it was born in hell. Sorry for the awful treatment, Sandy, and now wary of visiting book clubs myself.
Thankfully, such rude and clueless ''critics'' are in the minority (I agree with others that criticism or questions can be offered politely, and not in a mean spirit.)

Leslie Budewitz said...

So weird. Basic civility and hospitality completely ignored. This was a Skype visit, wasn't it? Probably easier for them to forget their manners without your physical presence. As others have said, why invite you if they hated the book -- although they may have extended the invitation before reading it.

I'm still laughing -- sort of -- about the woman who marched up to me at Local Authors' Night at the library to tell me she hadn't finished the book, read only a 3d, because it was too slow. Gee, thanks. So glad you told me! All I could do was say "I'm sorry you were disappointed," and turn to the next person in line.

Sandra Parshall said...

Although I think this sort of thing is happening more and more, I don't believe it's typical of all book discussion groups. As I said, I've had some wonderful experiences. Book clubs led by librarians are virtually guaranteed to involve thoughtful, considerate readers, and any writer should feel comfortable meeting with them.

Steven M. Moore said...

Leslie, I received your same comment in a book review. Because I've written a few books, I offered a freebie, thinking another book of mine might strike his fancy. I probably shouldn't have done that. I just hope he returned the first book to Amazon--wouldn't want him to waste his money. ;-)

Susan Oleksiw said...

I've come to this discussion late but I'm awfully glad I found it. Thank you, Sandra, for bringing this behavior into the light. It seems that anything goes now, no matter how bad the behavior, in the interests of honesty and authenticity. I went through something similar in a writers' group years ago, and I was stunned. I just listened as the other members tore my mss apart. I left the group, and several years later the same thing happened to a friend of mine, in the same group. I was sad and disappointed, but she was very very hurt and confused. This kind of behavior can be very destructive and I vowed that if it ever happened to me again, I would stop it and be very clear why I was stopping it.

Thank you for a very enlightened post.

Kit Sloane said...

Not a book group but a sister-in-law who flat out informed me, with a terrible frown, that she "hated men like that," speaking of my male protagonist. I was dying to ask her why but complained instead to my agent who said what's to hate—Max is handsome, rich, successful and he loves Margot, his partner. Okay, but I'm still wondering what set off my sister-in-law! I certainly struck a nerve but have no idea, these dozen years later, why, or why she told me....

Unknown said...

Regarding the "slash-and-burn" folks....Their nasty comments usually reveal more about who they are than anything about the author/book they are trashing .

Mark Baker said...

I will certainly share why I hate something to friends, but I would never do it to an author's face. I'd find a way to say something neutral or just keep my mouth shut.

That kind of treatment is unbelievable.

Lev Raphael said...

Unlike Charlaine, I don't want to write a perfect book, I want to write a strong, effective one, whatever the genre. And if someone dislikes it, fine, but inviting me (or Sandra) for a mugging is just disgraceful.

Lynn Reynolds said...

Wow! So sorry for your negative experience, Sandy! I've only done a couple of visits to book clubs and both went pretty well. After hearing about your experience, though, I'm sure I'd be more wary in the future.

I have to confess, I long for those legendary days (if they ever truly existed) when authors wrote a book and then moved on, while some hired publicist did the promoting of it.

Better luck on your next appearance!

Anonymous said...

Sorry you were treated that way! Thanks for sharing with us all & for your guide for all!

I too would like to know what group your experience was with. If you can't share it here then maybe in some of the writers' groups online though it seems to me everyone might want to know. If I was going as a reader I would not want to waste my time with people like that and as a writer I'd feel awful if I unknowingly went or urged someone else to before finding out the hard way.