And in each of the book clubs, the discussion inevitably defaults to the same amateur book review format. Each person says, “I liked it because X, although Y was lacking.” And then we total up all the Xs and Ys and figure out which features worked or didn’t work for each person. Thus, we achieve some broad consensus about the features of the text, and we learn a little about how each person responded to those features. Sometimes there is a disagreement about whether the book really had slow pacing or whether the ending really did follow logically from the events, but usually, because we are all friends and are motivated to respect each other’s opinions, we eventually say something like, “Oh yeah, I can totally see how you would’ve felt that way.”
And then … what? There’s nothing more to discuss! All we’ve learned is that, yes, we all read the same book, but that some parts of the book resonated more with some people. Now if we want to know the why of what makes some people like some things and other people like other things, well … we can talk about it if we want, but on a fundamental level, does anyone care? We already know that different people respond to the same thing in different ways. Surely this isn’t why we started a book club.
It’s fine. We enjoy each other’s company. We drink coffee, we eat crackers, we get reacquainted with each other’s love lives, and we have an excuse to read the books that’ll appear on The New York Times’s notable list this year. And of course, reading the books is the point. The whole book club is predicated on the notion that reading these books will improve our minds in some way, and that it’ll contribute measurably to our intellectual lives. And yet, month after month, I leave each meeting feeling as if we’ve engaged in an empty, meaningless exercise.
Is the answer that we’re simply bad readers? Are we like the status seekers C. S. Lewis decries in An Experiment In Criticism (1961), when he says:
As there are, or were, families and circles in which it was almost a social necessity to display an interest in hunting, or county cricket, or the Army List, so there are others where it requires great independence not to talk about, and therefore occasionally to read, the approved literature, especially the new and astonishing works, and those which have been banned or have become in some other way subjects of controversy.
I love to decry the moral decrepitude and shallowness of the bourgeoisie as much as anyone, but the problem here is that I’m part of these terrible book discussions, and I myself am a literary critic! I read and write about books for fun. And yet, time and again, my mind goes blank during book discussions, and all I can muster up is “Er, I thought the book was good, because …”
What’s interesting is the blankness doesn’t happen every time! One book club had a strong, vigorous discussion of Patrick Radden Keefe’s history of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Say Nothing (2018). Another book club had an equally prolonged discussion of Cory Doctorow’s quartet of speculative novellas about the future of work, Radicalized (2019).
So, what separated these books from ones we’ve had trouble discussing, books like Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet (2020), Patricia Lockwood’s No One Is Talking About This (2021), or Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (2007)?
I mean, it’s obvious, isn’t it? The latter books are contemporary literary novels, whereas the former are nonfiction and science fiction, respectively. Say Nothing and Radicalized were fundamentally about ideas: What does the future hold? What motivates a person to kill for a cause? These are big, open questions that you can readily discuss. We all think about ideology. We all think about current events. We can engage easily with these texts and do it on a more even footing, arguing with their conclusions and adding our own experiences to provide a counterpoint.
But because it’s not grounded in literal truth or in ideology, most fiction isn’t as permeable. You can read it. You can enjoy it. But when the experience is over, you’re left with nothing to say other than “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it.”
And although you can go deeper, trying to justify or analyze your reaction, what’s the point? The book exists: it got critical acclaim — obviously somebody liked it. Ergo, you can’t say the book is bad or it shouldn’t exist. All you can say is that you wish you hadn’t read it, and saying something like this tends to undercut the whole basis of the book club: if you didn’t like it, then that means you only read the book in order to discuss it, and yet your discussion consists only of the fact that you wish you hadn’t read it!
One problem with discussing literary fiction is that, ultimately, even while one might read novels to improve one’s mind, the experience is still supposed to be enjoyable.
Although, as writers, we try to fill our books with all kinds of complexities and nuances and powerful themes, we expect that the reader will essentially only make it through the book because they enjoy reading it.
Book clubs, by their nature, interfere with the way a book is meant to be experienced. By removing enjoyment as an explicit factor in picking up or sticking with the book (because you’re reading it for the book club), they call into question the worth of the exercise as a whole.
In this, book clubs obviously draw their inspiration from that great temple of forced reading: high school.
Every child in the United States will graduate high school with the experience of reading some novel that they often didn’t enjoy, purely for the purpose of discussing it in a group setting.
But what’s fascinating about book clubs is that we instinctively drop everything we learned from high school English class. We have the form of the classroom (the schedule, the discussion, the forced reading) but not the content. I’ve never been in a book club where someone did a close reading of a sentence or highlighted foreshadowing or looked for symbols.
Of course, those academic tools are all holdovers from the New Criticism, which is coming up on 80 years old now, and which long ago lost its foothold in the American university. What almost every college graduate uses now, instead of these skills, are the twin tools given to us by Foucault and Derrida: the analysis of power relations and deconstruction.
My fellow book clubbers are, as far I know, all college graduates, and for most of them the application of these skills is so effortless that they tend to apply them even in daily life. For instance, when presented with an objectionable statement by their boss, a friend might explain their discomfort either through deconstruction (“My boss just thinks IT is a lesser job because we maintain things and provide support to people instead of creating them, even though what we do is way more complicated than what the programmers at our company do”) or she might use power analysis (“IT is more equal, more meritocratic, less elitist, so my boss needs to insist that programming is the tougher job, or he’d be forced to admit that fancy credentials don’t matter”).
Deconstruction allows us to dredge up the unsaid from the text. So, for instance, if we were discussing O’Farrell’s Hamnet, we could say:
This is a book about a play, but we hardly see the play onstage. Instead, the “real life” of the novel, Shakespeare’s home life, is held in service to the distant life of the “play.” And yet, isn’t it really the play that gives meaning to the home life? This novel wouldn’t exist without the play, so in trying to bring the minor characters in Shakespeare’s life to center stage, doesn’t it ultimately end up just confirming his primal importance?
And you can go on and on in this vein, inverting and finagling the book and making it say whatever you want. But when it comes to book club discussions, deconstruction ends up being rather sterile precisely because it is so destructive. It tends to attack the text’s reason for existing and whatever overt meaning it had, and since that overt meaning is exactly why you chose to read it, you lose your reason for coming together in the first place. The problem with deconstruction is that, since it reduces everything to a text and finds hidden meaning in everything, it makes the choice of text seem immaterial.
The other main tool we’re all equipped with, power analysis, is much more fruitful and familiar. This is the tool conservatives are carping about when they talk about “Social Marxism” or “Critical Race Theory.” This is the search for the ways in which the text supports preexisting power structures. Essentially, you look for ways the text is racist or misogynist or homophobic or whatever.
So, for instance, I could say that, by focusing on the prosperous bourgeoisie, Hamnet ignores the exploitation of the poor and working class, the laborers who also enabled Shakespeare’s production. That it’s a typical tale of white feminism — of a bourgeois, well-off woman who’s angry because she’s been cut off from her patrimony and subordinated to a man — and that it shores up white feminist narratives in our culture.
Power analysis has the advantage of being less diaphanous than deconstruction. It doesn’t involve the manipulation of symbols and games with words. And it’s a way of placing even ostensibly nonpolitical texts within a broader framework of issues that we care about.
The problem, however, is that it has essentially nothing to do with the literary qualities of the text. It doesn’t matter whether you’re analyzing Two Broke Girls or Hamnet — you’re always going to get the same answer: “This text supports preexisting power structures.” In fact, the very things that make a text great — nuance and complexity — make it more vulnerable to power analysis, because it will contain suggestions and possibilities that power analysis can pick up on.
The bigger problem with power analysis in the context of a book club is that it’s like pulling the pin from a grenade: it destroys the conviviality that is the whole reason for the gathering’s existence. First of all, it makes anyone who liked the book seem like a bad person, because the book is clearly just a tool for supporting preexisting power structures. Secondly, it brings in a lot of implicit political assumptions. I don’t know the political ideology of the other members of my various book clubs. I assume they’re all what used to be called “limousine liberals” or “bourgeois bohemians,” and that many of them are probably very sympathetic to, for instance, the problems of upper-class white professional women. If you spend the first half of the book club complaining about the glass ceiling at work, you can’t very well spend the second half talking about how this book reifies the glass ceiling myth as a way of dividing up the global proletariat.
So, even though we’re all sophisticated people, we’re at a loss during book club discussions because our usual tools of analysis are so powerful and destructive that to unholster them would wreak carnage on both the text and the cohesion of the group.
The obvious solution, which is what I always advocate, is to simply stop picking fiction. This is the choice that most serious review outlets and book pages have chosen. If you open up The New York Review of Books or London Review of Books or The Times Literary Supplement, you’ll see hardly any fiction titles reviewed, and for the same reason: unless you resort to deconstruction, power analysis, or high school–style New Criticism, there’s simply not much to say beyond “This is why you should/shouldn’t read this book” — a topic for which, honestly, a few hundred words would usually suffice.
Nonfiction, in contrast, offers a jumping-off point for talking about the broader implications of ideas and for arguing with the author’s conclusions. For instance, with the Radden Keefe book, we discussed how the United States has traditionally been quite sympathetic to the IRA. Then we discussed whether the author sympathized with them or not (consensus was that he did not) and whether the terrorist tactics in the book had achieved their aim or not (opinion was mixed), and we talked in more detail about the difference between a political and a nonpolitical criminal.
Now, could fiction notionally also provide this jumping-off point? Well … yes, but the problem is that good fiction doesn’t contain a clear viewpoint on the material. In its nuances and complexities, good fiction already contains whatever broader points you would want to make. Moreover, fiction doesn’t generalize: it’s about specific people doing specific things. You, as a reader can say, “Well, a person in this situation could do different things!” or “This situation might happen differently!” But that’s not much of a comment, because the novel isn’t making the claim that life is always this way. It’s merely presenting one way things can be.
So if, in talking about Hamnet, we talked about “ways that male creators are supported by their wives,” then it starts to feel a bit reductive, for two reasons: (a) the book explores those themes better than our discussion could; and (b) the protagonist, Anne, is complex in a way that makes it hard to say she really “supported” Shakespeare. So, when it comes to using fiction as a jumping-off point for discussing broader social issues, all your points feel trite before you make them.
But the problem is that people love fiction. They enjoy reading fiction. They don’t want to read nonfiction all the time. It’s simply unaccountable that — even though nonfiction gets more respect, has higher per-title sales, and has the weight of “being about real things” behind it — book clubs are inevitably going to choose novels. Maybe it’s a hangover from English class. Or maybe, dare I say it, there is something to be said for the complexity of the novel — for the way it eludes easy answers.
So where does that leave us? Are we going to, month after month, have boring discussions about the latest book by Zadie Smith or Yaa Gyasi or David Mitchell or Meg Wolitzer? Or can we come up with a different way of talking about books?
Maybe the solution is to work backwards and to think about what we require from a book club discussion.
First, it has to be civil. We need to be able to stay friends afterwards. This means it can’t get too political (unless that’s the point of the club), or the book club will disintegrate.
Second, it has to be grounded in the idea that reading this book was an educational experience. Thus, it can’t solely consist of attacking or dissecting the book. This means deconstruction and power analysis, while inarguably powerful tools, are out.
Third, we’ve already sat through the book. We don’t need a book review. We know what’s in the book. We’re not recommending it to a friend, we’re having a discussion about it.
A logical choice that now presents itself is the idea of using the book for our moral education. This idea used to be quite popular. Almost every educated Englishman would have been familiar with Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, which pairs notable figures from those ancient civilizations and offers an analysis of their lives: their strengths and failings, and the ways each improved on the other. For instance, Cicero (a Roman statesman who resisted Mark Antony) is paired with Demosthenes (a Greek statesman who resisted Philip of Macedon), and Plutarch, going through their biographies, concludes that Demosthenes had more gravity of manner and was less self-aggrandizing, but Cicero was the more honorable and honest in pursuing his duties.
A remnant of this tradition survives in the high school English class, where we’re asked to understand, in a very general way, the themes that animate a work. For instance, we’re asked to understand how Gatsby’s pursuit of “the American Dream” as symbolized by the green light ultimately proves hollow when he sees that the wealthy class he idolizes is itself venal and self-indulgent.
Generally speaking, in online discussions of a work of art, whenever we’re not resorting to power analysis, we’re usually engaging in moral analysis. The two are related in some ways, but power analysis is about situating the work within the overarching power structure (and critiquing that power structure), while moral analysis is a bit simpler: it takes the work as given, almost as if the story were nonfiction. In a moral analysis, you talk about the characters as freely and simply as if they were real people you know.
That is, after all, the striking contrast between our weak, tepid book club discussions and the vigorous freewheeling discussions we have about ourselves and other people. When we’re discussing an acquaintance, it’s easy to say, “What was she thinking? Why did she do it? Do you think they were a match? Did they make the right choice?”
I have literally spent hours dissecting the marriages of friends of mine, and yet when it comes to the fictional marriage of Anne Hathaway and William Shakespeare in Hamnet, my book club disposed of it in 15 minutes.
And yet there’s so much to talk about! Was Will right to leave her at home? Is Hamlet a worthy price to pay for someone’s death? Would Anne even have liked Will if he wasn’t a playwright — wasn’t she somehow drawn to that potency in him? You could go on and on, reading more into the lives of these characters. It’s certainly a capability that any of us has, and it’s one we’re usually unafraid to exercise when it comes to television shows or the lives of our friends.
But when it comes to a book club, we’re reluctant. After all, virtually every month we’re treated to viral articles or Twitter threads about how “the desire for likability” is poisoning modern fiction. Characters in fiction aren’t like characters in a sitcom. They’re powerful and vital, and they’re beyond likability.
Moral analysis has its defenders, usually among those who think the primary purpose of fiction is to engage with and elucidate moral problems. C. S. Lewis would count himself among their number. John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction (1978) is also a classic text in this vein. But probably the most forceful and convincing advocate for the essentially moral quality of fiction was Tolstoy, who, at the beginning of his late-period polemic What Is Art? (1897), engages in a bravura analysis of hundreds of years of aesthetic theory, which he proceeds to dismiss by saying:
Just as people who think that the aim and purpose of food is pleasure cannot perceive the true meaning of eating, so people who think that the aim of art is pleasure cannot know its meaning and purpose, because they ascribe to an activity which has meaning in connection with other phenomena of life the false and exclusive aim of pleasure.
And then he spends a few hundred pages claiming the purpose of art is to improve a people’s moral fiber. It’s very convincing, until you actually think about it.
The problem with claiming that fiction has an inherently moral quality is ... where does it end? One might say that narrative art is moral, but what about ballet? Or opera? What about visual art? What about abstract art? Is all art about moral problems? Is noise music about moral problems? If you’re Tolstoy, you solve the problem quite neatly by saying that whatever doesn’t fit your theory simply isn’t art (he famously claimed that the works of his middle period — Anna Karenina and War and Peace — were immoral and worthless).
But if you’re more clearheaded, you have to admit that some forms of art have almost zero moral content, and from there you’re left with a debate: Are the costumes or cinematography of a film essentially moral? When it comes to books, is the cover moral? What about the character names, the rhythm of the words, the choice of metaphors? All of these things have an aesthetic effect — they engage with our sense of beauty — but if they have any moral component, then that component is very obscure.
The problem is that whenever we engage in moral analysis, we experience the nagging feeling that we’re ignoring the aesthetic aspect of the book, and that it’s exactly these aesthetic qualities that elevate the novel as a topic of discussion and make it more important than the details of our friends’ marriages.
After all, moral analysis involves abstracting the characters from the novels in which they live and treating them as if they were real. The artistry of the book is still a part of the discussion, but it’s very sublimated. To the extent that the artistry has added nuance and complexity to the characterization, the writer’s craft becomes a part of the discussion, but not the main part. Moral analysis is not going to cut straight to the heart of a book and tell you how the words on the page turned into a story. It’s not going to show you how words become poetry, or how the organization of information and the various stylistic devices used by the author contribute to its themes and story. Those tools, unfortunately, belong primarily to the New Criticism, and, if I’m being honest, most book clubbers don’t have enough familiarity with those tools to make use of them.
I think a book club where the members paid serious attention to the words themselves — to sentence length and syntax and rhythm — could be quite interesting, but I have never in my life encountered a group of people willing and able to engage in that discussion (and that includes the book club I formed with the other members of my MFA cohort).
To be fair, I think my opinion is slightly stronger than “most book club members are unable to engage with a book on the deepest possible level.” I’m more in Tolstoy’s camp than I’d like to admit. I think that a value-neutral analysis of a book’s aesthetic qualities does most books a disservice. In my opinion, the deepest possible understanding of a book only comes when you let it live and when you engage with the story that it’s trying to tell.
Seen in this way, by paying attention to what the author doesn’t say (deconstruction), or why the author said it (power analysis), or how the author said it (New Criticism), or how we felt about what the author said (book reviewing), we’re missing the point, which is that something happened. Something was at stake in this story. Characters made decisions. Those decisions had consequences. And it’s in that specificity — in what Hegel would call its “determinate content” — that the real value of the story lies. I personally don’t think it makes sense to spend half an hour talking about the language and the structure of The Sound and the Fury and only five minutes talking about how they castrated Benjy. The castration is at the core of the story, and all of the rhetorical and aesthetic devices are meant to amplify that story, not cover up or erode it.
Moral analysis is a powerful and fruitful way of discussing books, particularly in groups of friends, precisely because it is disconnected from the real world, and because it is so specific, and because it doesn’t presuppose a certain political or ethical framework. People can discuss Benjy without having their own views about parenting or ableism called into question. The author has done the work of incorporating all the complexity of the issue, and you’re allowed to discuss the story through the eyes of its characters, without implicating yourself.
Honestly, I don’t see moral analysis catching on. For one thing, I suspect my book clubs might be a bit of an outlier, and that Middle-American book clubs are rather more likely to engage in moral analysis — which means, fundamentally, that this becomes a marker of social class and sophistication. Are you a real reader? Someone who appreciates art for itself? Or some Nebraska housewife who gets lost in stories and treats them as if they were real?
Moral analysis feels, in a way, like giving up. It involves putting down our weapons and coming to the book with fresh eyes. Obviously, we are still ourselves; we still have all our sophistication, but when it comes to moral analysis, it tends to be our moral intuitions and spiritual development that come to the forefront. Moral analysis doesn’t silo fiction as something separate from life. It involves the same skills one uses to make decisions on a daily basis.
And that means that it exposes the reader in a way that a more academic analysis doesn’t. The reader who is unable to perceive the ethical nuances in a text or who is unable to sympathize with the characters’ struggles — the one whose comments inevitably begin with “Why didn’t they just …?” — is often the least empathetic and spiritually developed in their personal life.
And yet that exposure is exactly why it’s worth doing.
I don’t think the point of joining a book club is to improve our reading skills. That would be horribly empty, if we were just reading books in order to become better readers of books. I think we read books to become better people, and we can’t become better people unless we admit that we are flawed and human and insensitive and that we vitally need the perspective that this book is capable of providing.
This is an admission that comes with a real cost. It means saying something like, “Hey, uh, lots of kids died of the plague, but not all of them inspired Hamlet, and isn’t that actually, like, kind of worthwhile? Or should Anne have refused to forgive him?” These questions might be uncomfortable, but if we don’t want to explore that discomfort, we should probably just join a knitting circle instead.
Naomi Kanakia is the author of three novels, out and forthcoming from Little, Brown and Harper, and of a guide to the publishing industry.
Featured image: Joseph Schillinger. Key Blue (from series, the Mathematical Basis of the Arts), ca. 1934. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Joseph Schillinger. www.si.edu, CC0. Accessed October 11, 2022