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February 24, 2009

Joshua Henkin's Book Club Adventures: The Latest Chapter, January 2009 Part II

Posted by carol
Yesterday Joshua Henkin, author of the novel Matrimony, answered some of the questions he's frequently asked by reading group members about the writing process. Today he weighs in on another question he was recently asked during a book club gathering...

Another Question that Came Up in January: What do you think of book group facilitators?
I've been thinking about this question in the context of a broader issue that comes up when I meet book groups. Sometimes a book group member will say to me that they appreciate Matrimony more now that they've talked to me, that they understand things about the book they didn't understand at first.

I'm of two minds about this. On one hand, I'm glad meeting me has enriched their understanding of the book, but on the other hand, I think a book needs to stand on its own. In the writing workshops I teach I don't allow the writer to explain or defend what s/he wrote because if only we could do that in real life --- stand over our readers' shoulders and explain things to them. The fiction itself has to do the work. At the same time, we all know the experience of having taken a literature course in high school or college and having our appreciation of the book enriched by that experience. In that sense, a good book group facilitator plays the role of a literature professor. They point the group in the direction of certain interesting themes and can get the members to move beyond the question of whether they liked the book and to focus on questions that are potentially more interesting.

A couple of months ago, in the Style Section of the Sunday New York Times, there was an article about book groups and about book group facilitators that featured, among others, my fellow guest blogger here at, Esther Bushell, who's a wonderful book group facilitator from Greenwich, Connecticut. One of the things Esther and other book group facilitators do is manage some of the complicated interpersonal dynamics that come up in a book group (a facilitator is a psychologist as well as a professor!). They can also help choose books that the group might like but that the members haven't necessarily heard of. In addition, the simple fact that book group members pay a facilitator may make the members more inclined to take the meetings seriously and to make sure they've read the book (it's strange what paying money does to you!).

Of course, facilitators aren't for everyone, and a bad facilitator is worse than no facilitator at all (I once spoke to a book group whose facilitator was so intent on proving to me how smart she was that she didn't let anyone else in the group speak. She barely even let me speak!), but I've been struck by the number of really good facilitators out there. In the last month, I talked to two book groups led by Julie Robinson of Literary Affairs in Beverly Hills, and Julie did an amazing job of guiding the discussion, keeping everyone involved, and offering important insight into Matrimony. So did Susan Boyar, a book group facilitator in Connecticut and New York, whose book group meetings with me have been consistently terrific, thanks in no small part to Susan's work as a facilitator.

And there are lots of other excellent facilitators out there. Judith Palarz and Penelope Saltsburg are two that come to mind. They both facilitate quite a number of book groups out of Los Angeles, and they both have excellent reputations. Between the two of them and Julie Robinson, I'm beginning to get the sense that L.A. is unfairly pegged as a movies-only town. Might it be a center of book culture (and book group culture) too?

---Joshua Henkin

Previous Posts by Joshua Henkin:
Book Club Adventures, January 2009
Book Club Adventures, December 2008
Book Club Adventures, December 2008 Part II
Book Club Adventures, November 2008
Book Club Adventures, November 2008 Part II
Shouting Matches and More