Blog Post, Criticism, Culture, Essay, writing

The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

I was recently informed that someone out there on the interwebs has a serious problem with the “Classics Club Spin.” Now, normally, this sort of thing wouldn’t phase me. Different people like and appreciate different things. So it goes and who cares? But then I visited said blog and read the post, a self-congratulatory and sweeping criticism of modern-day “book clubs.” The most intense criticism is saved for the joyful little spin, however, and the rationale is beyond bizarre.

The blog post begins thus: “But there is a strange new trend, a marketing plan for glamorous curators of books. Publishers can now con readers into subscribing to book clubs where the “editors” choose the monthly books for the customers.”

That’s a pretty reasonable critique, save the part of this being anything new.  In a way, this trend has been around at least as long as Dickens, who—along with other serial writers—created the market for subscriber-based fiction. That said, the idea that there is a “great con” in a book club is simplistic and dishonest. Do subscribers really not know that editors will be choosing each month’s selection for them? Do they not sign up for the program themselves, and continue it month-to-month so long as they are satisfied? Can they not choose to return the book, or “DNF” it, or read it, love it, and rate it on Goodreads, if they want? Where, exactly, is the con?

But it gets worse.

At this point, the writer goes on to criticize specific clubs.

First is the NYRB Classics Book Club, which she thinks is too expensive. In this, I probably agree, but again, where is the con? Don’t have the money? Don’t join the club. In most cases, these clubs also post their reading selection(s), so guess what? A person could join along as they see fit or not, with different editions and even electronic copies, if they want to save money or choose to avoid certain selections.

Then, The Art of the Novella Subscription Series from Melville House is called out for choosing books that do not count as novellas. The criticism here is that the book club facilitators do not know what a novella is. She indicates that books such as The Awakening and Jacob’s Room are novels, not novellas, and so these editors need to learn what is what before they can earn her loyalty (though at this point, I’m beginning to doubt they would receive it regardless). The intense scorn, based only on two examples, seems inappropriate at best, especially considering the fact that The Awakening and Jacob’s Room certainly come close enough to being novellas. Merriam-Webster defines a novella as “a work of fiction intermediate in length and complexity between a short story and a novel.” Most dictionaries of literary terms further limit the novella to between 17,000 and 40,000 words. Well, The Awakening surpasses the limit by about 6,000 words (45,965) and Jacob’s Room comes in at about 54,000 words. So, in the strictest sense, are they novellas? Perhaps not, but I think more than enough readers and scholars alike would accept that they come close enough and that the reader of short fiction/novellas would receive more benefit than harm from their inclusion, particularly if they are aspiring writers. Maybe I’m just missing the “con” again.

Next on the chopping block is Asymptote Book Club which the author says she has “never heard of” and thereby sarcastically dismisses its claim that it is “the premier site for world literature in translation.” I’m not sure what sort of argument, “it can’t be true because I’ve never heard of it” falls into, but it seems to fit our times. To be fair, though, she’s also not a fan that the choices are “surprises” and that they are selected by an “award-winning team” (“who are they?” she asks. That’s a fair question, but did she bother to read the “about” section, or send an email? “Reader beware” is a nice catch-phrase, but doing a tiny bit of work is also acceptable, especially for someone who finds personal choice and responsibility such a virtue, as will be demonstrated below.) As it turns out, this Asymptote club works with independent publishers with similar missions. I for one can support that.

The final club to be critiqued is the good old-fashioned Book of the Month Club, which has narrowed its monthly offerings down to five (from a previous “catalogue” of options). This club receives the least amount of scrutiny, for whatever reason, but it also serves as the set-up for what the writer introduces next: an incomprehensible and frightfully misinformed view of The Classics Club’s “Classics Spin,”which the blogger deems “horrifying.”

The writer begins by suggesting that participants in the spin “have a problem with choice” and that she herself only bothered to look into it because “some very good bloggers participated in this:  otherwise, I’d never have heard of it” (so, again, if this person does not know about it, it must not be important or substantial – what a healthy opinion to have of one’s self).

Ultimately, we arrive at the strangest and most harrowing critique of the entire piece, reserved not for a corporate book club out to make money, but for our small, independent, volunteer-based little club:

Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance? My husband speculates that people no longer want responsibility. If they do not choose their own books, or if they merely draw a number in a lottery, they have less commitment to the book. If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it. My own theory is that “they” are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse. Soft addiction to tweeting? Good. Choices? What choices? It’s going to be really, really terrible.

Where to begin? “Ceding choice?” Perhaps, because this writer is only interested in what she already knows, she did not bother to read anything about the Club. You see, Clubbers choose all of their own books, and the spin itself is a self-selected list from one’s own previously compiled list. That means “Spinners” have literally made their own choice twice.

Avoiding “responsibility”? What sort of responsibility would that be? The responsibility we have to ourselves to choose our own books? The responsibility to choose to finish or not finish the book? The responsibility to choose to write about or not write about it? The responsibility to decide whether or not we join the club or participate in any/all of the spins? I suppose each of these things is, yes, a personal responsibility and choice. I’m happy to say, all of these choices are in fact the responsibility of each club member, which is what makes it such a compelling, eclectic, and lively group to be a part of: no one “Clubs” the same way.

“If they dislike a book, it’s not their fault. They didn’t choose it.” Once again, the writer seems misinformed about the nature of the list and the club. The clubber/spinner does choose to put that book on their list, so whether or not they read it is “their fault,” as she writes. How to classify a reading choice as a “fault” or not, though, is beyond me. If someone dislikes a book, they dislike it. There can be any number of reasons why, but in six years I can share this much: no one has ever blamed the fact that they didn’t like a particular book they read for their Classics Club list on the fact that they read it because it was a spin selection. What flawed logic that would be; fortunately, we have escaped it thus far.

But if all of that wasn’t strange enough, her final lines turn out to be the most ridiculous and shameful of all: “My own theory is that ‘they’ are narrowing our choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters. Thinking? Bad. Reading? Worse.” So, this writer actually thinks that The Classics Club, which has existed for six years simply because people love to read and write about classic literature, is a kind of totalitarian groupthink in disguise? It takes something beyond a stretch of the imagination to conclude this way, and it starts with total ignorance of the club and its purpose and methods.

To be clear: members of the Classics Club choose their own list of books and set their own pace. They can modify their lists at any time. They also choose their own Spin lists and can join or not, at any time. Members come from all over the world and the moderators are volunteers who spend their own time and resources keeping up the website, social media accounts, etc. The entire purpose is to read, with added encouragement on review and discussion. Anyone who thinks the Classics Club is “facilitat[ing] the despotic politicians of the dystopian future” needs to go back to class.

How does one develop such a strange antipathy for something so simple? I’m not sure, but my grandfather had a favorite saying that comes to mind now: “Any club in which [s]he’s a member is not a club I want to join.” Perhaps these book clubs should consider it a blessing that they do not count “mirabile dictu” among their ranks. And perhaps, if she first became familiar with the things she critiques, she might develop a different perspective on them.


You can read the original post here: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/

Edit: She appears to have removed the original post. A new post is here, for those who care: https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/06/the-missing-bbc-adaptations-of-george-gissing/

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77 thoughts on “The Dystopic Villainy of Book Clubs

  1. You just have to laugh. She was either having a bad day or is just a very insecure, unhappy person. Let’s wish her well for a happier outlook on life. Your grandfather’s s saying, I believe was started by the wonderfully funny Groucho Marx.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. That’s hilarious! I clicked through and read her post and it’s rather silly. She is somehow very much against book recommendations and serendipity – I mean, fine, choose all your own books to read if you want to, but sometimes people like to take a chance and read something chosen for them. It can lead to a wonderful surprise. I have no idea what the part about despotic politicians and dystopian futures can possibly mean. I can’t even quite understand that sentence.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article, Adam! I read about this from another source, and obviously this person did not even bother to read the descriptions of our spin, which were available on the blog of almost everyone participating.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Eye roll. It smelled a bit like click bait until the attack on the Classics Club, then it just got ridiculous. A few minutes of research would have revealed the mission of the club and the deep yet playful love of literature our members share. The spin helps build excitement and conversation about classics and how anyone can think that’s a bad thing is beyond me.

    Regarding the other clubs mentioned, publishing is a business with low margins so subscription models where companies can make a few extra bucks potentially helps more books get published and more books get noticed by more readers.

    Thanks for your excellent response, Adam.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am really really late to this and I am just …..speechless is the word I guess! At the same time, her assumptions and preconceived notions are so far fetched that they do seem entertaining! I read such great books that I would have missed on had it not been for the club and clubbers who encouraged me and helped when both easy and no so easy books came on!This is the best volunteer book club ever and our friend here really needs some help in being happy!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m appalled. I had to go over and leave a comment. I wasn’t nasty…just matter of fact. She makes Classics Club members sound like a bunch of mindless idiots. What the actual hell?

    Let’s hope she doesn’t check out my long time Goodreads book club, TuesBookTalk. We read a different genre each month and I pick the 5-6 books we vote on to read for a particular month, and…EGADS!…I sometimes outright choose the book for a particular month. Shame on me! There I go “narrowing choices to facilitate the despotic politicians of the dystopian future…”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Well bless your cute little cotton socks Adam!!
    Obviously while I was sleeping last night, this has become a thing.

    I went to bed thinking everyone’s entitled to their own opinion & since she’s not a blogger I’ve ever come across before, I’ll just stay away from her joyless side of the world. And stick with my lovely, friendly, fun, smart, curious cc bloggers.

    Now her most recent comments to some of those very same cc blogger friends show her up to be both judgemental & dogmatic. I doubt she will care one way or the other what I think. This little online storm may be exactly what she wanted, although I suspect she’ll lose more readers than gain.

    But now I will go back to enjoying my role in promoting climate change & political anarchy – who knew reading classics by chance could be such a dangerous thing 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • Entirely possible that it was intentionally combative, indeed. Or that she really didn’t see it as being as rude and critical as it is. Doesn’t matter, really, as the Club was totally misrepresented and in rather extreme hyperbolic ways. It seemed important to me to have a corrected record, so to speak. Say – political anarchy! What sort of reading fits your cause? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh Lord, she sounds fun at a party.

    It’s hard not to respond to that post with a degree of hostility given its tone and the unnerving feeling any responses to her will be discussed later in pitying and horrified (oh, but amused as well of course) tones. But here we are.

    The blogger asks – “Why are people ceding their choices to curators and chance ?”

    Firstly, as everyone says – because it’s fun.

    I know. It’s always really embarrassing watching the lower orders have a bit of fun, but we find jolly ways to amuse ourselves and damn it, we enjoy it. Because you do have to let people enjoy things sometimes, even if you don’t get it. By all means analyse it, and obviously it’s very pitiful that we don’t have higher pleasures on our minds than the random draw of a number, but we prefer to take our amusement in this form rather than, oh I don’t know, the condescending discussions of people’s reading methods.

    Secondly – for the push. Many of us in The Classics Club want to challenge ourselves. We want to read the entire works of Shakespeare, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or obscure pieces of Medieval literature that in all fairness ought to be left well alone. These things can be daunting, or at the time unappealing, but we know that if we just give it a go we’ll be better readers or even better people. The spin gives us that little push into the unknown. It’s motivating, if you will.

    Thirdly – people’s spin lists are a neat little snap shot of their Classics Club list. It’s nice to see what other people have planned for their future reading. One gets ideas from it. Now, however tempted I was to sue Jillian for making The Mysteries of Udolpho sound like a good idea (sorry Jillian, if you’re reading this), I won’t. I’m capable of both being a member of the CC and taking responsibility (heavy though it was).

    Fourthly – when people use the “5 books I’m excited for / neutral about / dreading” that’s always interesting. Regarding the “dreading” – there’s two reactions if you’ve read the book the person is dreading – 1) share your thoughts and encourage, or 2) discuss with hubby in condescending tones bemoaning the current state of affairs. It really does depend on the type of person you are as to what option you’ll chose.

    So, as someone who has been a member of Classics Club since it began, I really do hope that clears it up for her.

    And as for the facilitating “the despotic politicians of the dystopian future of climate change and disasters” – oh, honey, there are better examples to do battle with right now.

    On another note: Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook has been on my TBR for about 15 years but I keep putting it off. The final sentence of the blogger’s post has probably just set it back another 15 years 🙂

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    • Udolpho remains my nemesis. I’ve never read Doris Lessing, but I did just read Joan Didion’s collection THE WHITE ALBUM, and one of the essays is on Lessing. Here’s how she introduces the piece:

      “To regard a great deal of Doris Lessing over a short span of time is to feel that the original hound of heaven has commandeered the attic. She holds the mind’s other guests in ardent contempt. She appears for meals only to dismiss as decadent the household’s own preoccupations with writing well. For more than twenty years now she has been registering, in a torrent of fiction that increasingly seems conceived in a stubborn rage against the very idea of fiction, every tremor along her emotional fault system, every slippage in her self-education.”

      Now, doesn’t that seem appropriate?

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    • Jillian says:

      I love you.

      (Sorry for the heavy load there, o! How now, though: your Clarissa outstacks it and then some! And I knocked my face out with that one. I cede nothing.)

      x

      Like

  9. I had one blogger who took against my and Karen’s ‘clubs’ – 1927 club etc, where we encourage people to read and review books published in a particular year. It seemed so unnecessary to blog about why she didn’t like it – just don’t do it! I normally enjoy Kat’s blog, but her critique did feel unnecessarily unkind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can definitely understand not being interested, but the tone and charges of the criticism seemed severely outlandish to me, and then her replies to members of the club also seemed rather cruel -dismissive and rude, at least. I’m glad to hear this might have been out of the ordinary, but it’s not a blog I’ll visit again.

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  10. Michelle: I loved how she responds to you that she wasn’t talking about the Classics Club specifically but “an internet phenomenon.” I thought about pointing out to her that explanation would work EXCEPT she actually says “the Classic Club Spin.” What an odd way to make a “general” comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Karen K. says:

    I’m imagining you as a dystopian villain, taking over the reading world. Like Dr. Evil or Blofeld from James Bond, with a white cat. Using your mind control to . . . change the world by dictating our leisure reading choices! The power!

    Seriously, though, I wonder if she’s just going to get more people to sign up for the Classics Club and the Spin by giving it more exposure.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I was so shocked at her saying it was puerile. How, just how?

    There seems to be a market in cynical outlooks and I think her post is more ‘marketing’ than any kind of book club. There are loads of clubs out there with the element of surprise being a beautiful bonus. I have been a member of yarn clubs and book clubs [Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights has one of the best!] and I so grateful to all the time and effort that goes into them.

    I am doubly grateful to you, Adam, for not only the classics club but to your consistency in this blog too. Excellent post. You responded very well.

    Thank you!

    Like

    • Yes, one of my first reactions was, “this reads like the kid in school who was determined to hate Harry Potter without having read it simply because we all loved it, wrote this post.” There’s definitely a market for that kind of outlook, as you say.

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    • Jillian says:

      * Well, it is puerile, and few of us need a game to read the classics.*

      https://mirabiledictu.org/2018/08/02/the-glamour-of-book-club-curators/#comment-39007

      I’m guessing Kat doesn’t like the spin because she views it as a trivialization of something she considers a personal accomplishment (her own reading, and her willingness to carefully select each title). She probably wouldn’t admit that, but it comes down to it, I’m afraid. Literature is wrapped up tight and guarded like treasure, for some people. That’s what makes it SEEM so intimidating, really, and what the club hopes to combat. Perish the thought we play a game while also enjoying Shakespeare. It’s puerile. Very much so. Very untidy.

      The spin is a game — she’s right about that. I don’t see why this is an issue. Some do “need” the game to take the plunge on a big book. I also don’t see why this is an issue. Some enjoy the game because games are fun. Some make choices all day and like a bit of surprise in their reading. Some are just there for the social aspect. Some are there to participate and encourage others. The woman frankly has no idea, and is merely punching a hole at what she doesn’t like. Human nature! We’ve read about its perils.

      I do dispute her claim that “few of us need it.” Hey, the classics are intimidating. Some people are nourished with them early in life. Some make the calculated CHOICE to start reading, but still need a push to try Chaucer. Some have no idea where to start. There is nothing shameful in letting the a bit of silliness guide your reading a little. It’s the fear of the spin that makes it fun. A truly silly gamble, and why not? The world is full of terrible things. Why not take a merry-go-round and finally meet William Shakespeare?

      The thing is, though — it isn’t JUST a game. It’s a club. It’s a place to say “I DO NOT LIKE DICKENS HELP ME PLEASE” and get something of more substance than the word “puerile.” Sure, people aren’t choosing when they spin. They’re playing a game. They’re leaving it to chance. And then they are reading. And they are changing. And they are writing. A LOT of people end up with books they likely wouldn’t have read without the spin, and the book ends up stunning them, and then (and here’s where it’s more than a game) they choose another. If that’s “puerile,” I’ll have to prescribe some Michel de Montaigne to Miss Kat: “Even on the highest throne in the world, we are still sitting on our ass.”

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Wow. Just wow. Despotic and dystopian… clearly there’s some sort of underhanded evil plot afoot to force innocent readers into reading literary classics and… hmmm… what’s the negative outcome here? Help, I’ve read Moby Dick against my will? It’s all very silly and uninformed.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Al @ mounttoberead says:

    It appears the original post has been taken down, as I cannot find it either through the link provided or on your blog. But it just saddens me that peopl e feel the need to be so antagonistic. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been listening to a ton of Star Trek podcasts talking about toxic fandom lately… but it feels similar. The (albeit small) toxic fandom among bookworms.

    There often can be a superiority complex about how much of a bookworm someone is. Some people measure it by how many books they own but haven’t read (my own personal pet peeve because I own very few books due to money constraints and space, but I also am a very avid library user… and a librarian myself, so I have easy access to books.) Some people measure it by number of books they read in a year. Some people measure it by they types of books they read. Or in this blogger’s case, by how they choose their books vs. how others choose them.

    I also wonder how she would feel about the winter reading challenge we did this last year. And by we, I mean the adult section. In kids we did something entirely different. Anyway, for the adults, you filled out a form with what you typically read and the librarians chose something either just outside, moderately outside, or greatly outside your reading comfort zone (depending on what you put down in the form) for you to read and review. I found the exercise really interesting, and I actually enjoyed the book I read. That someone else had chosen for me. That’s basically the purpose of my job: providing book suggestions when people don’t know what to read next… and helping kids learn how to research… and telling kids to walk please… and toddler storytime… and…

    People are allowed to enjoy books how they want. The fact that they are taking the time to unplug and focus their attention on a book (whether an ebook, audiobook, or print book) is really remarkable in this increasingly distracting world regardless of how they came across that title.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love Star Trek. How do you feel about the Patrick Stewart news? I was excited until I realized it was going to be on that online subscription channel.

      That library project sounds great! I would be pretty nervous about the “greatly outside your comfort zone” books. There are some genres I really don’t enjoy and don’t want to be bothered by. 😂

      Everyone is free to feel how they feel and practice whatever activity as they see fit. I won’t always understand every perspective, but that doesn’t concern me. What troubled me was the the fact that a volunteer-based group was attacked in such a public way, and so condescendingly. The tone seemed wildly inappropriate and unjustified. That said, I do hope she took it down because she realized it offended people and not because she was being attacked (the comments I read were courteous, but I know the blog had comment moderation enabled.)

      Like

      • Al @ mounttoberead says:

        Oh for sure, I totally was saying people being allowed to enjoy books however they want in solidarity with Classics Club and not with her. I realize I didn’t make that clear. It’s been a long day in the Kids Library.

        As for the Sir Patrick Stewart news, I’m pretty darn thrilled. I was a bit frustrated at first about the subscription channel but then I realized a few things:

        1. With the subscription channel, they can tell stories that they can’t necessarily tell on network t.v.

        2. There mostly likely would not be a second season of Discovery, or even more Trek if it had been on network T.V. Nothing is given a chance to breathe the way it used to. (Heck the fact that TNG even happened after that first season is amazing!)

        3. You can subscribe for only as long as you watch the show and then unsubscribe.

        It’s not necessarily ideal… but it does mean more Trek. And it does seem to be the way TV is trending in general as streaming becomes more of a thing.,

        Liked by 1 person

    • Jillian says:

      Well said. I love that idea about suggesting a title out of someone’s comfort zone. There’s a page on a blog I follow called The Book Lion on WordPress (she’s a librarian too) where she asks you several questions about your reading, & then she emails you with a personal list of books you might like to read next. I did it once, asking specifically for historical fiction about women that didn’t end in a love story. She was super helpful! I bet she’d offer books out of one’s comfort zone, if they asked. 🙂

      Anyway, I feel like that’s the idea of the spin. IF people are looking for a little challenge. That’s why you’re encouraged to list a few titles you aren’t sure you’re ready to read, when you make your list of twenty. I notice a lot of people (myself included) skip this step and only list books they are sure they want to read. 🙂 But it can be a great way to introduce a person to a classic they might avoid for years, if they want the challenge…

      Anyway, thanks for your work as a librarian! 🙂

      Like

      • Al @ mounttoberead says:

        You’re welcome!

        I really love the spin for that reason. My first ever spin, I was saddled with 1984 which I don’t know if I would have ever picked myself. Since then, I haven’t been as intentional with my list because I’m always afraid of getting one of the GIANT books, and if I have reading to do for work, obviously it takes place over something else. (And let me tell you, some of the middle grade literature is hefty!) That being said, I’ll likely have to put Don Quixote on my Spin list sometime if I have any hope of ever reading it.

        Like

  15. I actually just joined the Melville House Art of the Novella club last month, after finding one of their books, George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, in an airport bookstore, skimming the list of titles, and thinking “This is AWESOME!”

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I can’t be bothered to read the original post – your summary is enough for me to realise I would never be able to see eye to eye with the writer. I have subscriptions to three book clubs (two I bought myself including Asymptote and one given as a gift). The selected books are often not my taste but I resent the suggestion that I am being manipulated. I don’t HAVE to read any of them. Oh and somewhere along the line the fact the classics club spin is meant to be a fun activity seems to have been ignored.

    Liked by 1 person

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