Genre Fiction and Book Club Etiquette

book worm A friend recently started a book club, and I was delighted to join. Sure, what I like best to read are romances and mysteries, but to include one book per month that was outside my usual reading range sounded like a great idea. So far we have met twice, the one book I have read until now was not quite to my taste, but still interesting to peruse, and I like other participants, all women. None of the other women read romance extensively, although one is like me in that she openly and unabashedly prefers happy endings. The other thee women are more into literary fiction, with some women’s fiction and detective stories added. So far, so good. There is only one thing that is driving me up the wall.

When we have finished discussing the book du jour, the next questions are: “And what else have you read? What are you reading at the moment?” The group-member who reads the most (let’s call her Bea) always has several titles to list, but she introduces two of three books she mentions with the words: “But it’s not literary fiction … It’s not that well-written really, I’m just interested in the topic … It’s just popular fiction really …” And it’s driving me insane.

For one thing, I think it rather pointless to consider a book’s purported literary value ahead of everything else. Second, in my eyes it’s just cringe-worthy when Bea gets apologetic about the books she so obviously enjoys. What’s the point? No-one’s handing out credits for each book according to its literary value. And how I am supposed to feel, whem I adore popular fiction?

Because I value my time and the good mood prevalent in that book club otherwise, I am determined to cure Bea of that habit in our club. She can tell other people she doesn’t value the books she read as long as she pleases.

So, have you got any idea how I can stop Bea from disparaging her books in this way? I am prepared to get as manipulative as I need to, but I don’t want to be downright rude, as I like Bea and appreciate her take on the books otherwise. Please run by any ideas you have, perhaps you will be the one to come up with the perfect solution to my problem. Because if I can’t solve this somehow, I am afraid I will have to leave the book club. If it becomes a place where the worry if a book is “good” enough or “literary” to deserve discussion is constantly brought up, it’s not a place for me.

-Rike Horstmann

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24 Responses to “Genre Fiction and Book Club Etiquette”

  1. Herta says:

    Hi Rike,
    There are two things you could try. One is to be enthusiastic about her “non-literary choices”, chiming in that you love them too and perhaps opening up some dialogue that would eventually create a comfort zone and decrease the disparaging remarks.

    The other tactic might be to confront her head on with a smile and “why do you apologize for the books that you enjoy?”. Sometimes direct is best.

    Rike, am I correct in thinking you are in Germany? The reason I bring this up is that in my opinion (having been born in Germany myself) that there is a cultural bias against “fluff” i.e. light, amusing, non-serious, non-literary stuff. If this is the case, poor Bea is probably trying to signal on the one hand, that she, too is made of “serious, stern, high minded stuff”, but is also casting out an unconscious lure to others when mentioning her more easy reading choices in the hope that someone might break the ice and make her not feel alone and, well, somehow not as worthy for enjoying them.

    Just my thoughts.

  2. Claire says:

    Sounds like she may have some self confidence issues when it comes to her reading. I’m not sure the cure can from anyone but herself but since you asked for suggestions I would praise her choices of what she’s reading right after she says them. And like Herta said, something like the direct but soft approach of asking her why she apologizes might work. She might not be aware she’s even doing this over and over and something as someone simply saying “hey, you know you dont’ have to worry about telling us what you read” might work.

    Are any of the others in the group likely to look down on her choices? If everyone is open and casual, maybe eventually she will feel safe bringing up the books she’s reading. But if there’s one person who has a negative vibe, she might not ever get over it.

  3. Jim says:

    I joined a local book club when they picked Mary Doria Russell’s “The Sparrow”, because I had an autographed copy sitting on my TBR pile and it was a good excuse to actually read it :-) They also tend to emphasis the more “mainstream” choices, which expands my otherwise genre-focused envelope. But I’ve been on a one guy crusade to widen their experience too, so I’ve had them do a western (Louie L’Amour), a mystery (Dorothy L Sayers), a romance (Jennifer Crusie), SF (Asimov, Bujold), satirical fantasy (Pratchett), etc. In several years with the club, of all the books picked by all the members, only one book has met with 100% approval, and that was when I picked Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein”. Sturgeon’s law (“90% of everything is crud”) applies. Don’t recommend things to a book club unless you like the quality, but once you do, don’t expect everyone else to like it equally. “De gustabus non est disputandum”. And just because the mainstream critics still haven’t gotten over the shattering effect of world war one on the western psyche, doesn’t mean you have to agonize about suggesting books with a HEA ending. If anything, the trajectory of critical research in the academy is toward _more_ respect for the best of popular literature, not less. Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens were writing for the general public, not the critics.

    So yes, encourage your friend, and let her know that genre picks have been known to work out in other book clubs. She’s not a minority of one.

  4. Margaret says:

    I agree with Herta, make her comfortable…encourage her to talk about the other books, tell her there’s no need to apologize, her opinions/likes are just as valid as anyone elses. Try to think of a book you both have in common…

  5. Katie Mack says:

    I’d do just what the other posters have suggested: give her friendly support. Tell her that she doesn’t have to apologize for the books she reads, and that you’re a big popular fiction fan too. If you are vocal in supporting her choices and making it clear she doesn’t need to apologize for them, she’ll likely feel more comfortable about them, and the other participants will probably hesitate to make any disparaging comments because now there’s two pop fiction supporters instead of just one.

  6. Catherine says:

    Everything we read has value and enriches our lives in some way – whether by making us happy, sad, thoughtful, curious, etc. Books of every genre do this so no-one should ever apologize for or downplay their choice of reading materials. I read European historical romances for enjoyment, escape, and relaxation. I’m unabashedly hooked and freely admit that to anyone who asks. I’m not sure if I would have said so ten years ago because I may have felt intimidated. Bea might be feeling a little of that. I agree with Herta’s suggestions and would go a little further and tell Bea that she doesn’t have to apologize for her choice of books and perhaps one of them might be a good recommendation for a future bookclub read.

  7. I am going to quote a very interesting article contrasting literary and genre fiction that should make you feel better about your reading preferences. This quote comes from the website http://www.statemaster.com:

    The term “genre fiction” is sometimes used as a pejorative antonym of literary fiction, which is presumed to have greater artistic merit and higher cultural value. In this view, by comparison with literary fiction, genre fiction is thought to be formulaic, commercial, sensational, melodramatic, and sentimental. By extension, the readers of genre fiction—the mass audience—are supposed to have coarser, less educated taste in literature than readers of literary fiction. Genre fiction is then, essentially, thought to be the literature that appeals to the mass market. Look up Antonym in Wiktionary, the free dictionary. … Artistic merit is an English language term that is used in relation to cultural products when referring to the judgment of their perceived quality or value as works of art. …

    But from another point of view, literary fiction itself is simply another category or genre. That is, it can be thought of as having conventions of its own, such as use of an elevated, poetic, or idiosyncratic prose style; or defying readers’ plot expectations; or making use of particular theoretical or philosophical ideas as well as having a niche audience, “generic” packaging and “superstar” authors.The publishing industry itself treats literary fiction as one category among others.

    In addition, it can be argued that all novels, no matter how “literary”, also fall within the bounds of one or more genres. Thus Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is a romance; Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is a psychological thriller; and James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a coming-of-age story. These novels would usually be stocked in the general or possibly the classics section of a bookstore. Indeed, many works now regarded as literary classics were originally written as genre novels.

  8. Rike says:

    Thanks for all your suggestions!
    Yes, I do feel that Bea is embarrassed about the books she enjoys (which of course she shouldn’t be). The problem is, she is the only one among that group who ever even mentions literary merit, and as far as I can see, the person with the most “highbrow” taste among the five of us. So I don’t see anyone within the group give her the feeling she needs to apologize. It is quite possible, however, that some people outside our small circle do!
    A further issue might be that she’s a primary teacher, whereas both the friend who started the club and I are secondary school teachers, and of languages and literature, to boot. In addition, I’ve got a PhD in Eng Lit (although I’m not sure she’s aware of that). So she might just feel insecure because we studied literature as a major subject at university and she didn’t. This is actually highly ironic, because of the whole group I am the reader with the least highbrow taste.
    Herta – the distinction made in Germany between “high” and “low” literature is awfully judgmental. I do not subscribe to it at all, arguing that books of high (and low) quality can be found among all sorts and genres, and defend this position whenever the topic comes up. But as I said, none of the other readers in our book club mentions the artistic merit of books.
    Lisa Marie – I like the idea of regarding literary fiction as just another genre! For me, coming from Germany where the most common and quite official term for the less highly regarded genres like romance or Western is “trivial literature” or even “trash literature”, the term “genre literature” is very positive and entirely non-judgemental.
    Getting back to my problem, I will try to reassure Bea about her reading choices, but I feel encouraged by what you say to actually address the matter with her directly if the indirect approach doesn’t work. Thanks for the advice!

  9. Mary Skelton says:

    You might also casually remind her that most of what is now considered “literary fiction” began as popular fiction in its time. Stephen King’s Dark Tower series may come to hold the same value in 50 years that Tolkein’s LOTR’s does now. Dickens was definitely a popular fiction writer. He wrote for the masses in serialized form and today you cannot get much more highbrow than Dickens. The genre should not matter as much as the quality of the writing and the author’s ability to engage the reader. I was an undergraduate history major and I remember more history from the historical fiction/romances I have read than all of the dry textbooks from my classes. Also, I have a tendency to research a particular period of history to see how accurate the fictional representation was, so I gain even more knowledge that way. If a piece causes you to think and to internalize what you read, it is worthy of your time. I like to think that serious readers should be well rounded. By reading different genres we expand our experiences and gain interesting insight.

    It would not hurt for you to (again casually) bring up your PhD in English Lit by quoting some professor or a discussion had in class. It will give you authority with her and make her value your opinion more since she seems insecure. Once she knows that “literary” people place value on other genres, she may begin to let go of her bias.

  10. carol irvin says:

    I agree with Mary Skelton. This is true for other media as well. It is very hard to say which music will endure, which art, which anything when you attempt to judge it in the time when it was created (or half century to century). I suppose arguably the one that is breaking the absolute most rules and is most likely to be described as horrendous is also the likeliest one to have lasting artistic merit. This is what Impressionism and Abstract Expressionism were both called at the time of their creation. It is also possible that Bea has had people jump all over her in the past if she didn’t hop in there first to make light of her choices. This way no one can criticize her choices because she’s criticized them herself first. It’s a form of self protection.

  11. Rebecca says:

    Like any addiction, a book snob must come to terms with her own issue. I know, because I was one myself a couple of years ago. These are people who read stuff they hate, but sounds impressive, just incase someone asks them what they’ve read recently. If they disparage ‘popular lit’ it’s because they secretly hunger for it. If you can persuade your group to pick stellar examples of romances and fantasies, she may be in for an eye-opening experience, but there’s nothing YOU can do to speed this along.

  12. Rose says:

    For some reason when I was younger, I had the attitude that you had to read a certain kind of book for it to “count” I remember once someone asking me if I had read anything lately and I answered no. But after I thought about it, I had read several books, just none in my mind that “counted.” Slowly over the years I have come to terms with “reading for fun” and I do believe that my life is enriched in some way by most everything I read.

  13. Anne Gilbert says:

    This is a very interesting discussion. I don’t read much “literary fiction”; most of it just isn’t to my taste. And like Rike, I’m unashamedly the sort of person who prefers happy, or at least “resolved” endings. Heck, it’s fiction, not “real life”!But the reality is, that there are a lot of “literary fiction” snobs out there, and one of the reasons I haven’t joined any reading clubs is that the ones I’ve seen in my area seem to read “literary fiction” almost exclusively. Again, from my experience, a lot of people have learned to “like” literary fiction and have also learned to “look down on” other types of fiction as not being “real” enough(or some such). I know some people who won’t read any kinds of fiction at all! I think the various suggestions on how to deal with the “it’s only genre fiction” are good, and I don’t have much to say about them, other than I hope some one of these techniques succeeds. But I think we should all bear in mind that this attitude toward “genre” fiction is out there. Things are beginning to change, but the attitude is still alive and well, and I think we will all have to find our ways of countering it.
    Anne G

  14. Mary Skelton says:

    Since I read literary fiction as well as every other type of fiction and non-fiction, after a few minutes it is hard for anyone to be a literary snob with me. If they have read a book, chances are I have read it too. I am a self-professed book addict. The snobbery is out there though as Anne said and all we can do is counter it one person at a time. When you think about it, the number of people actually writing fiction in the 18th and 19th centuries was pretty small compared to today. So there was less of a selection that would stand the test of time. The gothic novels of the 18th & 19th centuries were the equivalent of today’s romance. They were considered drivel but were enormously popular. Now titles like Anne Radcliffe’s “The Mysteries of Udolpho” and Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre” which has elements of the gothic novel are classics today. As with everything else in history, things progress. Many of today’s writers are actually BETTER writers than those who came before them. There is more honesty with some contemporary writers because there are less strictures placed on what they can write about. In my own humble opinion, it was a very slow year when “they” decided that Joseph Conrad’s “Lord Jim” should be a classic. I hated that book. There will probably always be book snobs, but they only limit themselves.

  15. RfP says:

    Perhaps she means to be self-deprecating, not not deprecate the genre. If so, it may not be that easy to change her attitude.

    I have a recent example of that. I talked to a friend who was re-reading Moby-Dick; she made sarcastic remarks about the book because she didn’t want to sound pretentious for reading it. Deprecating the book was a side-effect of her own concern about how she presented herself. That corresponds to some of my experiences: not all self-deprecation is motivated by shame over having low-brow tastes; some is about being high-brow. Perhaps that also applies to your book-club friend.

  16. Letty says:

    First, I have to agree with not wanting to appear to ‘high-brow’ as someone commented – I was reading, of all things, War & Peace when still a teenager (and almost all the classics) – and I knew it wasn’t quite the thing..it can make people defensive or simply project upon you some reality that isn’t yours, etc.

    The simple truth is that a book can be enjoyable whether it has literary merit or not. Another fact is that Joyce, Proust & Kafka broke the mold in literary style – creating, in effect, a different style of reading consciousness. Or Doestoyevsky who almost created the ‘psychological’ novel himself, etc. That doesn’t mean ‘to seduce a sinner’ is a bad book or unenjoyable – but, it is does not have ‘literary’ merit in the sense that Kafka does or any modern day living prose stylist – & that doesn’t mean these literary ‘genre’ fiction writers books are enjoyable!! I can read, for instance, right now – a literary collection of short stories ‘in the valley of the kings’ & then pick up ‘the charmer’ by Bradley. Or listen to Mozart’s requiem mass – then maybe some AC/DC….so what? And I’m sorry – but, though I may enjoy Bradleys books for the story it does not affect me the same way the short story ‘in the valley of the kings’ – I’m not saying one is better than the other – merely different.

    Truly, the issue with romance is the title & cover – plain & simple. Now, you could argue there’s a deeper cultural/sociological issue regarding love/sex/& women & I think you’d be right…maybe that’s another topic! But, I cringe at these titles & covers most of the time. And to be honest, I think I’m starting to not buy books because of them – not because of what others think, but because it icks me out. Tessa Dare’s recent novels are an exception – slightly silly titles, to be sure, but elegant covers.

  17. Letty says:

    I have to add something about covers & the assumptions people make – imagine you are sitting in a park on a bench & some man is perusing ‘playboy’ – what would you think…you can only see the scantily glad woman on the front, there are articles in there afterall – but, ick – or I’d think ‘ick’. Now look at alot of these covers out there. I remember one in particular – the front was racy, but the ‘slipcover’ – if that’s what it’s called! – was a woman, she had her dress on, but it looked like & was meant to look like she was ‘riding’ this man – her head thrown back in ecstasy, her breasts almost bare, stradling some faceless man, etc. – what would you think? And maybe you would just thinks it’s pure porn and not a rollicky good read with many issues & situations…? leave those covers to erotica, is what I suggest…and keep the romance in good taste.

  18. [...] About Romance put up an interesting blog post a few days ago about genre fiction and book clubs. The post talks about how one woman in the club gets apologetic about some of her reading [...]

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