And what makes up a book club book? They're consistently grounded in reality, historical or present fiction (although usually historical), and have a political, didactic, or inspirational message to convey. The writing is never too experimental, guaranteeing a large audience. The historical ones are well-researched, but still fluff the details for the sake of the plot. And are always, ALWAYS, about people and how they relate to each other. Is that so bad?
The heart and purpose behind every book club pick isn't the plot, but an attempt to enter and understand the lives of the characters; regardless of how removed our own experiences are from theirs. This seems good to me.
I don't presume to think that I know what it really felt like to be a black woman in Mississippi, especially in the 1960s. I don't think it is something any white woman on the other end of a black woman's paycheck could ever truly understand. But trying to understand is vital to our humanity.
I read Kathryn Stockett's The Help, after months of avoiding it, because the film adaptation was opening soon. And if there's one thing I can't resist, it's a book-to-film adaptation. I'm endlessly fascinated by the transformation that takes place from page to screen. Sometimes appalled by the results, or elated, but always fascinated.
Stockett's novel is a book club darling. It follows all the rules. It has its flaws. It tries to root itself so deeply in the early 1960s, with all of the allusions to historical events and pop-culture references, that it becomes too wide of a focus. It becomes a book trying to account for the entire civil rights movement of that period, when it should have narrowed its focus. And the characters, however hilarious they are, boil down to stereotypes. They are caricatures of the people they represent. Every single one of them, black and white.
It was a great idea for a novel, and it could have been better. But I laughed and cried with the characters, was compelled by the story, gave the book 4 stars on goodreads, and paid to see the movie opening night. So who's the sucker. At the end of the day those 5 million people who bought the book have read and learned about racial prejudice and the civil rights movement in the US.
Like Jessa Crispin noted in this essay defending Elizabeth Gilbert:
Like a lot of people who care about books and writing and sentence structure, I was initially horrified at the success at Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Then I realized what it meant: 80 million people read a book about the removal of femininity from the Catholic Church, about how Jesus liked women and prostitutes and screw-ups and freaks, about how the Bible was edited by men in power, about how Jesus' divinity was not universally accepted. They read the book, and now it's in their brains, like a vaccination against patriarchal monotheism, even if they don't do anything with the information.
Oh, and how I love Dan Brown books. Every badly-written, historically inaccurate sentence. Don't judge me.
Not many quoteables, but here's a snippet I loved:
When you're not making mimeographs or fixing your boss's coffee, look around, investigate, and write. Don't waste your time on the obvious things. Write about what disturbs you, particularly if it bothers no one else.