An official definition of book clubs: a reading group, usually consisting of a number of people who read and talk about books based on a topic or an agreed-upon reading list.

What most people think of book clubs: a group of women who get together and drink wine under the guise of talking about a book they’ve agreed to read but most didn’t even buy.

Nightlighter bookmark.jpgMy book club: A collection of intelligent women who actually read and talk about books (we do also have wine and snacks, we’re not animals). We even have an official name, the Nightlighters, and a bookmark. (Check it out here. It rocks!)

Although I think my book club is special, I don’t think it’s unique. I believe there are plenty of book clubs out there bucking the stereotype of suburban dens where disgruntled housewives complain out their husbands while draining several magnums of wine.

Many people attend book club meetings not just at home, but also in libraries and bookstores. And it’s not unheard of for book clubs of all types to invite a visitor…like an author.

But bringing in the author of the book being discussed at book club can be a tricky situation. My book club has done this now on two occasions and here’s what I’ve discovered….it can be good and not so good. Let’s start first with the not so good because I like to end on a positive note.

Bringing Authors to Book Club: The Case for DON’T DO IT!

1. It changes the dynamic.

growing pains leonardo dicaprioI don’t know about other book clubs, but in mine we’re not just book club pals, we’re friends. We go on outings together that don’t relate to books and support each other when someone needs it. We’re a little book club family.

And here is where we can learn from the TV show Growing Pains. Anyone remember that show? Anyway, when the show had been on for many years they decided to spice things up and bring none other than Leonardo DiCaprio (before the fame). If anyone could breathe new life into the show, it would be him. Despite his obvious adorable appeal, it completely ruined the dynamic of the cast and the show went off the air shortly afterward. This is a common mistake in TV, a classic jump the shark move. And apparently, in this regard, life can imitate art.

Like Growing Pains, bringing in an author to book club can have a bit of a “jump the shark” feel. Many book clubs have an egalitarian format and a social balance specific to the group. When you bring in an author, he or she becomes the focal point. The balance shifts. It’s like throwing a giant boulder at the end of a boat, depending on how big the boulder is, it could sink the boat.

2. It silences criticism.

Animal Book ClubI imagine many book clubs have a similar mix of people. There’s the person who loves everything. The person who is hypercritical. The person who analyzes everything to death and people grow tired of her pontificating (that one is me.) The quiet thoughtful person who doesn’t speak often, but what she does always says something profound. And the person who looks at the book from a completely unique angle no one else thought about. Basically, since people are different, their opinions are different. And the fun of book club is feeling free to express those opinions and discuss them.

Thanks to the diverse opinions of the ladies in my book club, it is a rare occasion indeed when everyone loves a book. And that’s okay because our book club a safe space to share differing opinions, learn from each other and not be judged. (I know. It’s like saying unicorns exist.)

Now drop an author into that situation and those diverse, sometimes critical opinions, become blunted by worries of offending the author.

As an author myself, I find this situation twice as difficult. I feel it’s my duty to support other authors, even if I may not like or find certain parts of their work troubling. Writing is hard and personal and not everyone is going to like what you do. For me, there is an “author code” – AUTHORS SHOULD BE SUPPORTIVE OF OTHER AUTHORS. 

'No, go ahead and critique my mss. I'm always ok ... after the initial reaction.'And, let’s be clear. I have no problem giving people constructive criticism. I do it every day at work. When people ask me to read their essays and papers and books, I am honest and try to be helpful.

But in a book club situation, it is different. The biggest difference is there’s an audience. If it were a one-on-one situation where someone asked for my opinion as an editor and fellow writer, I’d provide the feedback. But at book club, there are others around and my goal with criticism is never to embarrass or put someone on the spot. It is to help.

You don’t have to be a writer yourself to not want to criticize someone’s work in front of other people. You just have to be human.

3. It leaves unfinished business.

On the two occasions we’ve had authors come to our book club, even if I enjoyed the book and found the conversation interesting, I left with this hollow type of feeling as if something were missing.

book club is like group therapyFor me, book club is therapeutic. At home, I blab on and on about books, and my family kindly listens, but they definitely don’t want to sit for an hour while I expound on the metaphors of a book they’ve never read. At book club, I’m able to have conversations with people who have read and thought about the same books as me. It fulfills this little part of me that loves to discuss and debate ideas.

I always leave my book club feeling excited and drained, in the best possible way. However, when we bring in authors, I leave with a different type of feeling, an uncomfortable feeling. It’s that feeling you get when you’re leaving the house for a trip and you’re sure you’ve forgotten something but can’t remember what it is. It feels like unfinished business.

Bringing Authors to Book Club: The Case DO IT!

1. Change can be good.

After the above you might be thinking, why would anyone bring an author to book club? What a TERRIBLE idea!! Well, not so fast because I love to play devil’s advocate. (Seriously, I even debate myself…it’s a problem.) While there are certainly some potential drawbacks to bringing an author to book club, there are also benefits. For one, trying something different can be fun and exciting.

hang 10My book club has a specific format in which everyone goes around in a circle and gives their opinion on the book while the rest of try to be quiet and listen. I emphasize the try. We often break off into tangents and it can feel a little like a religious experience with people calling out “me too” or making a “yes, I felt that way” gesture that looks a like a California surfer hang ten having a hand seizure.

And while this format works for us, it doesn’t mean we can’t try something different. In fact, we’ve enjoyed experimenting with locales (we’ve met at restaurants related to the topic of our books and had another meeting at the beach) or formats (like bringing in an author). These changes may be different and unusual but can still lead to unique and enlightening experiences.

Like with most of life, fear of change doesn’t help anyone. It just leads to stagnation. Book club is no different. If you’re always looking back to try to recapture the past, you’re likely run into a telephone pole. (I think Confucius said that. 😉 )

2. It’s fun to meet new people.

Even though I lean introverted, that doesn’t mean I don’t like to meet new people. I love people. I like to watch them and make up stories about them in my head. (No, that’s NOT creepy, stop thinking that.) But you know what can be just as fun? Hearing someone’s actual, true story!

Authors are storytellers and if you let them get comfortable, they can spin some interesting yarns. One of the authors we hosted at our book club wrote erotica. (Think 50 Shades of Gray type of book.) The author was very engaging and her stories about “research” for the book were extremely funny.

Getting to know her first through her book and then in person made for a very interesting event.

3. There’s always something to learn.

get litWhether you’re a reader or a writer or both, everyone can learn from an author. The process of writing and publishing can be extremely interesting.

Take the erotica author, for example, she was self-published and her struggle to navigate the publishing world was fascinating. But even more interesting was the response of her friends. After finding out the type of writing she did, some of her friends shunned her. This social consequence of just being a writer was not something I’d ever thought about before.

Another author who came to our book club was also a playwright. His descriptions of the writing style and considerations for plays (limited characters and locations to make for a more attractive play) were completely new to me and I enjoyed learning about this aspect of the writing world.

So has anyone else ever brought an author to book club? How did it go? Did you have similar experiences?