What Do We Really Think of Book Clubs?

The Jane Austen Book Club

What Do We Really Think of Book Clubs?

The Jane Austen Book Club

What Do We Really Think of Book Clubs?
New books dissected over email.
June 10 2004 10:26 AM

The Jane Austen Book Club

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Dear Steve,

Before continuing our dissection of The Jane Austen Book Club, I want to pause for a moment to give thanks: Hasn't it felt good, these past two days, to get your readerly discontent off your chest? To vent? Like you, I was so glad to find in my interlocutor a like-minded reader.

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So now let me turn the tables and broaden our discussion for a moment. Isn't the satisfaction I feel exactly what Fowler is probing in her book—often to great effect? I don't think this book is a good piece of fiction. But perhaps it is a brilliant piece of performance art. It's clever of Fowler to graft the Austenite possibilities of a story about a book club onto a romance: Book clubs and romances are dear to the hearts of women, who make up the bulk of book buyers. And romances were among the first books to be marketed, which helped lead to the kind of publishing we're familiar with today—blurbs on the back of every book, etc., and "discussion questions" for book clubs built into the books themselves.

Why book clubs? When Oprah announced that her next book would be Anna Karenina, I thought: Wow. Even Oprah won't be able to turn that one into a best seller. But today Anna Karenina was as high as No. 4 on the Amazon sales ranking. And one excitable Oprah fan has already posted her views—midway through the novel—on Amazon. She says she "couldn't wait"; she loves the book and was delighted by the very same thing you and I have been: Connecting with someone else about what you're reading. Writers—the ones who are out there talking the most about reading—generally tend to privilege the solitariness of reading and to forget about its social origins. But of course reading has long been a social thing, and the way we read reflects the social as much as the private. When Jane Austen was writing Pride and Prejudice, there were no book clubs as we know them—at least as far as I know. Instead, people read aloud to one another after dinner, as does the priggish clergymen Mr. Collins to the Bennet sisters (choosing a book so dull that flighty Lydia is forced to interrupt him to gossip instead). Today, no one reads to each other after dinner, but type "book club" into Google and you'll get 3,170,000 hits.

What does Fowler really think about all this? We haven't talked about a key aspect of TJABC: the list of discussion questions at the end (each ostensibly posed by one of the members of the book club). Self-consciously "meta," they're clearly what led to the book's being called "postmodern," and reviewers seem to have enjoyed these as much as the book. What's less clear to me is to what degree Fowler is sending up the very notion of books with questions from the publisherimprinted in them. Here are a few examples:

Austen's books often leave you wondering whether all of her matches are good ideas….Do any of the matches in The Jane Austen Book Club create disquiet? [Jocelyn]

In TJABC I take two falls and visit two hospitals. Did you stop to wonder how a woman who supports herself making jewelry affords health insurance? [Allegra]

Like with Shakespeare, it's hard to read Austen and know what her opinions really were about much of anything. Can the same be said of Karen Joy Fowler? [Prudie]

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Meanwhile, Putnam's Web site for TJABC has a "real" set of discussion questions, the kinds that Fowler is playing off. Most are somewhat standard affairs: "What novel would you recommend to first-time readers of Austen?" But the first one is more pointed:

The author opens the novel with a quote from Jane Austen, part of which reads, "Seldom, very seldom does complete truth belong to any human disclosure." Do you agree with this sentiment? Why do you think the author chooses to open the novel with this quote? How might this statement apply to each of the characters in the book?

Fowler wants to keep us guessing. She's having her cake and eating it too. The questions in the real book poke fun at questions promoted by publishers eager to cater to broad swathes of the reading public. But then there are "real" questions from the publisher (authenticity here deriving not from the artist but from the producer). The whole thing is a kind of funhouse mirror.

Back to that slippery "we."  The first person plural is in part that communal readerly spirit I talk about above. But it also serves as a catalyst of moral correction, doesn't it, Steve? Do you remember how the book begins? "Each of us has our own private Austen." Even if she's no Stanley Fish, Fowler means to show us that reality is slippery—and that the "we" of the communal readerly spirit in turn is an expression of how social experiences infect how we "read" everything. The narrator of this book turns out to be Bernadette—the character who has been gently mocked from the get-go as a nattering old bore. For when we finally get to her flashback, the point of view abruptly shifts to "I." All the other flashbacks are in the third person. The point of this tricksy last minute "switch" seems, sadly, to be little more than "Don't judge a book by its cover": Her life, it turns out, is far more swanky—even glamorous!—than her book-club persona.

So that's the big twist. Fowler doesn't mean that reading in groups can obscure us, while reading privately can illuminate us, does she? In any case, Steve, this has been fun—even if I never did talk about Allegra and the problem of dangerous happy endings.

Best,
Meghan

Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture editor. Stephen Metcalf is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Book Review and the New York Observer.