*Obligatory holiday season promotional messaging about the option to gift a subscription of ‘She Dares To Say’ to anyone who you think might be interested.
And to make things more ‘official’ you can also download a PDF gift certificate to send on to your giftee.*
As always, these guest posts are free for readers, but Almaz pays all guest writers/thinkers out of her own pocket. If you enjoy this content and would like to support please consider becoming a paid subscriber of ‘She Dares to Say’. If you would prefer to make a one-off donation, feel free to also send a contribution via PayPal.
You can also show your enjoyment without spending £££, by liking, commenting or sharing 😃
[Image description: Text ‘Book Club’ on a navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke]
It’s a familiar conversation, and one that I find myself in about every six to seven weeks: that the recently-published novels we choose to talk about, month after month in my book club, seem somehow… all the same. The seven of us exist, in our women-only space, in a sort of uncanny land of recurring character types and storylines. We are caught in the trap of market-driven publishing, of cover designs of abstract blobs and serif fonts, of Irish young women writers and disaffected 20-somethings, of over-hyped first-time authors and blurbs by Pandora Sykes and Dolly Alderton (British women who produced a podcast much-loved by millennial women, who now individually produce the sort of books book clubs read), and of feeling too often as though we’re a type – and one that we are all faintly ashamed of. Our choices are self-consciously diverse, and yet somehow the quality of prose never seems to get any better. The conversation is almost never a positive one.
The reasons for this are, on the surface, obvious – and partly it’s our fault, for not choosing better, for failing to do our research, for not digging deeper. But as the editors of N+1 wrote this year, we have learned we can’t “trust blurbs, reviews, excerpts – really anything with quotation marks around it. The reader finds, repeatedly, that the critics ‘are lying to him. He encounters them on the back cover of every new book, promising the world”. Blurbs are effusive and empty, and part of a machine that shows no interest in helping us, beyond algorithmic if-you-liked-that-you’ll-like-this chains of association. Consumers of new novels flail in a sea of bland positivity or half-hearted criticism, stemming from the critics’ fears of losing an income so precarious it’s almost a joke. At book club we often read aloud cover blurbs in a tone of exaggerated disbelief, the same superlatives stacking up on top of each other: “Deviously clever”, “Startlingly good”, “Ridiculously entertaining”, and even, “A nauseating, moving, morally suggestive, technically brilliant book” – all used to describe the panned (by my book club) Rodham by Curtis Sittenfeld.
Perhaps it’s the case that self-involved men (always a currency of literature) have evolved, quite reasonably, into self-involved women who want to tell us about horrible men (and, occasionally, horrible women, as in In at the Deep End by Kate Davies). That’s why we read about bad relationships a lot, and why male characters are consistently awful and abusive, ghosting and undermining with abandon – in Dolly Alderton’s Ghosts, Niamh Campbell’s This Happy, the aforementioned Rodham. And this isn’t to say that these stories aren’t important to tell, because we all acknowledge they are. We liked Carmen Maria Machado’s memoir about domestic abuse, In the Dream House, more than almost any other book choice, but that’s because it was undeniably brilliant. It was also not a novel – and so our grounds for criticism were less secure, Machado’s skills in transforming painful memories into art being all the more affecting for those events having ‘actually happened’. The book takes these tropes and turns them back on themselves: instead of building first person-narrated fiction around a story of abuse, she uses multiple forms and genres to tell a familiar story in a totally new way. We were so surprised by this, we almost had nothing to say.
Enjoying ‘She Dares To Say’? Share this post with your friends
Of course, book clubs can be politically skewed in radical directions; there are 20-somethings starting them now, as well as the countless groups of older women generating their only source of small talk. The vast majority are women-led, and so the inevitable monetisation of book club models by entrepreneurial girl-bossy women has been going on for a while. Many of those who go to book clubs want something more than anodyne plot appraisals – at least one person left my group to join one that mostly read feminist critical theory. And, like any discussion group, its form can be altered to meet the needs and desires of specific identities, topics, political leanings – but what I take part in is what you’ll often find: a group of over-opinionated women with degrees who drink too much.
And I know, our opinions don’t count for much. That’s why we don’t share our thoughts much beyond text messages. We keep the barbs for a closed, safe space; our assaults are carried out away from any gaze. The violence of the books, the anger of these young women wronged by men, finds parallel voice in us, a millennial chorus fuelled by years of experience and a few bottles of wine. Yes, we sing, we hate men too, and we hate you and your novel, we hate it all. And yet we keep reading.
Book clubs are one of the last remaining spaces for unfiltered criticism, and that may be why we’re so gleefully, sometimes angrily, mean. Is it the industry failing us, or are we doing it to ourselves? Do we secretly love pointing out each and every flaw in books that took years to write, that were labours of love, by women who often appear quite similar to us?
There have been times, at book club, when I’ve almost welled up with frustration at how defenceless the poor book seems. I imagine my own novel, one day in the future, being treated in the same unrelenting way. But what about the author’s intentions, I plead. We should remember how hard it is to write a novel. They did their best, and there are some interesting themes. Is that not enough?
The answer comes, and it is final. No, it is not. The book is very bad and should never have been committed to paper. Now, whose turn is it to host next?
[Image description: Text ‘PRODUCED BY’ on navy blue background with a lilac paintbrush stroke]
Lotte Hiller is a fiction writer and occasional zine-maker living in London. She started her book club in 2014. She finds social media too much to properly engage with, but is launching her own newsletter on books and other life miscellany this month: read more and subscribe here. Support Lotte’s work by making a donation via PayPal.
‘She Dares to Say’ is an email newsletter by Almaz Ohene, a Creative Copywriter, Freelance Journalist and Accidental Sexpert.
Follow Almaz on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
If you enjoy this content and would like to support please consider becoming a paid subscriber of ‘She Dares to Say’. If you would prefer to make a one-off donation, feel free to also send a contribution via PayPal.