A fine sultry, summer evening – the perfect occasion to sit in the courtyard garden of Mostly Books to discuss ‘What Makes a Good Bookgroup Book?’ And even better if we entice a couple of authors to discuss the topic with us...
As our opening event to mark Independent Booksellers Week (a week in which everything wonderful about independent booksellers is celebrated), it was a great opportunity to gather and discuss what is so great about being in a bookgroup – and why we get more fun and pleasure out of debating some books rather than simply enjoying them privately.
Our first guest speaker, Louise Millar said she had been invited to join in many bookgroup discussions about her psychological thrillers and said the thing she noticed people particularly liked to discuss was the issues that are raised in her books (her books are so popular with reading groups that they feature reading notes and points of discussion in the back, something not universally popular with the audience).
Louise explained that her books have domestic settings where the characters are often faced with very modern dilemmas – who to trust to pick up your children from school, what lies you would tell to cover any cracks in order to successfully adopt a child? – the sort of issues people can relate to - or at least imagine themselves in - and find it stimulating to debate.
On the evening, Louise read from her latest novel 'The Hidden Girl', another taut tale that ratchets up the tension and suspense, involving a woman who 'moves to the country' in an attempt to improve her life ahead of an impending adoption, but the rural idyll turns into anything but.
Thrillers are really popular choices for book groups, perhaps as crime fiction is predominantly read by women and women tend to outweigh men in book groups. In a discussion actively joined in by the audience - many of whom were bookgroup members themselves - the consensus was that the act of meeting up and discussing a book - the social aspect - was more attractive to women, which might explain the dominance of women at groups. (Mark did make the point, however, that there is at least one all-male bookgroup that meets regularly in Abingdon).
Publishers know that bookgroups are hugely popular and that meeting to discuss books is a great way to extend what you read and also to think in different ways about a book you may not have got very much out of if you’d read it alone.
Kate Clanchy, our other guest speaker, an acclaimed and award-winning poet who has written for radio, a memoir and a novel said that her book ‘Antigona and Me’ had been marketed as a bookgroup book because it is full of issues and opinions, even though it is a memoir.
On the evening she read from her first novel, the Costa shortlisted ‘Meeting the English’, which is on many bookgroup reading lists as a great summer read.
We agreed that it might be difficult to put your finger on what exactly makes a good bookgroup book, but definitely the book that is not a good book group book is one where everyone agrees, opinion is not divided and there is not much to discuss.
Often bookgroups are groups of friends and they can all have the same viewpoint. We felt that bookgroups work best if people come ready to discuss rather than expecting to have loved everything they read. In addition, an atmosphere or tolerance and respect in discussions is far better than just an 'I loved it / I hated it' approach.
Publishers increasingly view the ‘bookgroup’ book as a genre in itself, with books published that are targeted at being read and discussed in a group, reading group notes provided to help readers to scratch beneath the surface of whether a book is simply an enjoyable personal read or not.
There was general agreement that it is not always the books that you think will be good for discussing that stimulate the best debate, which sometimes can make it difficult to choose what to read. The event rather took on the form of a good bookgroup discussion: most of the audience contributed, and it was interesting to get a poll on the types of genre that made a good bookgroup memoir: most did not read exclusively fiction for book group choices, mixing in travel writing and biography/memoir as popular alternatives to mix things up a bit.
But the final vote of the evening was: is there such a thing as a 'bookgroup book'? It wasn't unanimous, but the majority felt 'no'. In the end a strong bookgroup with plenty of mutual respect and a good standard of discussion can deliver the best discussions when allied to a well-written novel with plenty of themes.
Many thanks to Louise Millar and Kate Clanchy for inspiring such an interesting debate, and thanks to all the bookgroups who not only came along, but who support Mostly Books by choosing and buying their books from us (and feeding back which books have lead to a great discussion!). Huge thanks to Macmillan for making the whole thing happen.
If Independent Booksellers Week is a time to celebrate bookshops, for us it is also a great time to say thank you to our customers for supporting high street bookselling and being part of the bookish community here in Abingdon.