Tuesday, February 12, 2008

When Book Club Goes Bad

Oh man. OH MAN!!! Tonight’s book club was something else. Because this was the Everybody Reads book group, the library brought in an ‘expert’ to facilitate our discussion. You know it’s going to get interesting when they bring in an ‘expert.’ Last year’s expert wanted to bring in all kinds of sociological theories but the discussion group pretty much shut her down and to her credit she mostly sat back and let us discuss the book which is what one would expect in a book group. This gal… oh man.

She starts out by introducing herself. She’s about as American as they come yet she pronounced her name with as much French inflection as she could. That kind of thing annoys me… but I was still willing to give her a chance. But then she went into a fifteen minute lecture on post-modern literary theory (she’s a Professor at PSU). The book is just an artifact, it has no meaning, it’s just squiggles of ink on pressed wood-pulp. Which of course begs the question of why the hell we’re there to discuss it if there’s no meaning to it at all. But I patiently waited and listened as she went on to talk about the three types of questions we’re allowed to ask of the book, fact based questions, interpretation questions (as the only meaning the book has is our interpretations of it), and value questions - was the book good or bad (but then she immediately states that this is the most useless kind of question).

Oh man. She just went on and on. Then right when I thought we might actually get to discuss the book she feels the need to point out that although it’s called a “memoir” we really shouldn’t treat it as “fact” that the only truth is that which we bring to it, etc etc etc… that the literature professors of the world would like to eliminate the distinction between fiction & nonfiction. And that when we learn to treat all books as constructs we won’t be as likely to be "duped" by memoirs that turn out to be fabricated. OH MAN!!

So *finally* about twenty minutes into the hour discussion, someone other than the ‘facilitator’ gets to ask a question. A fellow discusser comments that she didn’t feel a very strong emotional connection to the book and asks for some clarifications about the family situation. I answer her question about the family and agree that I didn’t feel that much of an emotional connection to the author either. At which point the facilitator corrects me by saying “This character the author created.” I have never wanted so much to hurl a book across the room at someone as I did in that moment. Instead I gathered myself and very patiently said that “In my interpretation of the book, I’m choosing to believe that the author *is* the character he is writing about in his memoir.” To which she further enlightened me by pointing out that “Saying something is ‘made up’ has such a negative connotation, but it really doesn’t need to.” OH MAN!!!!

The rest of the ‘discussion’ followed much the same vein. People attempted to discuss the book and the facilitator interrupted us, corrected our naïve and uneducated ‘interpretations’ of the story, and periodically brought up the fact that books portraying wars in Western Africa are merely feeding into our society’s innate racism. Oh man. It’s possible I was imagining the sigh of relief I heard when the librarian came in and told us it was time to wrap things up. But as we were filing out of the library it was clear that I was not the only one who had a problem with our facilitator. I had to reassure a first time visitor that typically it’s just one of the lowly community members (not a licensed, bonded facilitator) who leads the discussion and that lacking a Ph.D. in literature, we usually just let everyone you know… discuss the book.

Oh well. There’s always next month.


IrishgirlieKnits said...

That is definately book club gone bad. I feel especially bad for the first timer!! I'm surprised you stayed the entire hour...good for you!!

Bezzie said...

Oh.my.god! Dude, I would have walked out and made a point of walking out when she said something moronic and one-sided.

Isn't the purpose of a book club to discuss--not listen to a lecture--what EVERYONE thought of the book?

Magatha said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
IamSusie said...

Can you imagine how awful it must be to be in her class and rely on her to get a fair grade?

She sounds like someone with really bad social skills.

d said...

i often contemplate joining book club. because you know, fun. reading books and then talking about reading books = fun, right?

then i hear stories like this one and thank all that is holy and good that i don't belong to book club.

i really, really wish you would've thrown something at her. literary snobs are the worst.

Rebel said...

irish girl - I know... I really wanted to say more to the first timer, but when we got into the elevator Madame Professor (LOVE THAT!) got on too... so we had to whisper.

Bezzie - I seriously considered it. But it was one of those situations where I kept thinking "she's got to let us talk at some point.." I started picking lint off my hat though. ;)

magatha - Madame La Professor... you nailed.

susie - I was thinking about that, none of my lit professors were like that in school, I couldn't imagine if they were!

d - 11 months out of the year the discussion is member led... and anyone who wants to lead a book can volunteer. All the other times I've been to book club *everyone* got to share their opinion of the book and the other members were very respectful of each other even when disagreeing.

Rebel said...

it. magatha... you nailed it. =) She was wearing heavy make-up and a silk scarf, her whole persona was Madame La Professor. I've had french profs. less snobby!

Chicklit said...

This woman sounds like a real peach. And while I'm inclined to agree with her about addressing the protagonist as a character rather than the author, the other viewpoint is just as valid and hey... what an awesome discussion to have. Sigh.

Have you tried meetup.com for non-moderated book club opportunities?

Olga said...

Gads. Thats why the French guillotined the intelligentsia, they were so d**n annoying!!!!

Beverly said...

When I was in college getting my literature degree, I ended up in a lot of classes with people who behaved just as that facilitator did. People often wondered why I never took notes in class. Why write down what some snooty blowhard has to say about a book when I have my own opinion?

Melissa said...

How frustrating. I just have to point out though that most literature professors aren't like that at all. If they were I would have never finished my master's. The majority of professors I had in college expanded my view of the books and helped my see new layers of meaning. Sometimes when reading for fun I miss having those class discussions with the professor. Obviously this lady was not one of those good professors though.

Rebel said...

chicklit - I'd read about the controversy about the "accuracy" of the memoir, and was kinda keeping that in the back of my mind as I read it...you're right - it *would have been* a good discussion. Because the difference between the book being fact or being fiction makes a huge difference in how I interpret it. But nope... we never even got that far.

Olga - this woman defines the "Ivory tower" stereotype.

Beverly & Melissa - I think a good teacher acts as a guide, soliciting the thoughts & opinions from the students then introducing new ways of thinking about things. Fortunately I've had some really good professors. But unfortunately I've also known people who just come into a situation with an agenda or paternalistic attitude... I really don't think much learning takes place with 'teachers' like that.

Michael5000 said...

Critical theory offers a pretty good toolkit of ideas that can help you think about Literature, appreciate it more deeply, and enjoy it more. The problem is with practitioners who mistake the tools for the task.

Your guest facilitator's approach to literature is like the quantum approach to physics. It's a fine theory, it has a lot of Truth to it, and if you are a specialist in the subject matter you need to know about it.

But wise physicists switch back to the Newtonian model for navigating the everyday world, as this allows them to climb staircases and keep their cars on the road. The poor professor seems to have learned so much theory that she has forgotten how to read. Only a fool would bring that much theory to a book group.