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February 25, 2010

Chris Cleave: Little Bee

Posted by webmaster
Chris Cleave, author of Little Bee and today's guest blogger, talks about how much book clubs mean to writers and just how generally great they (we) are.

This month I’m working my way east across the USA, visiting twenty-four cities to talk with readers about books. I’ve been in San Francisco, San Diego, LA, Phoenix and Salt Lake City, and right now I’m on a plane flying over snowy white peaks on my way to Denver. This tour is great – crazy, fun, out-of-control amazing. Contrary to all the doom-and-gloom that’s written about the state of the literary scene, I can report that American readers still turn out in large numbers to talk about books, and that the events are electrifying, good-natured, irreverent, unique and thrilling. Every evening’s event is hosted by a book store or a library or a church or a community centre, and it seems that always, right there in row one, there is a group of friends from a book club. They’re the ones who will give you the biggest smiles when you stand up to speak, and who will ask the greatest questions, and they’re also the ones who will make your life hell if they think you’re wriggling out of giving a real answer. Reading groups keep writers honest and they make book events fun – teamed up with fine bookstores, they are the glue that holds the literary community together.

At the event in San Francisco, the whole of a reading group showed up because they’d had an argument about the ending of Little Bee and they wanted me to tell them who was right. Six members reckoned Little Bee probably died. Seven thought she probably lived. They looked at me sternly, demanding answers. A hush descended. Whichever way I answered, metaphorical fists were going to fly. Naturally I did what any noble, fearless writer would do: I weaseled out and gave a non-committal answer including the words “allegory” and “sorry”. Later, in the signing line, almost every member of that book club looked me fiercely in the eye and whispered: But seriously – between you and me – what actually happens at the end?

As a writer I am sure that a good novel should provide more questions than answers – that it should be the start of an enjoyable conversation between friends. So you can imagine how happy I am when book clubs roll up their sleeves like this. Pretty often also, book clubs bring such a diversity of skills and experience to bear on a text that their collective interpretation will be fascinating to the writer. People shouldn’t underestimate the impact that a good book group discussion can have on an author. Storytelling is a two-way street: the audience is involved in the creative process. An interesting discussion of a previous book will affect the way the next one is written. This is one of the many ways in which good readers help writers to get better.

Book groups matter, and as a writer who visits many book clubs, I can reveal that there are exactly two kinds. Type A book clubs are very serious entities. Every member will read every word of the book in question at least once, and the subsequent discussions will centre on literary tropes and textual analysis. Type B book clubs are more sociable affairs. The group will convene, everyone will drink two or three glasses of wine and the laughter level in the room will rise until, five minutes before the end of the allotted time, someone might casually mention: Oh and by the way, did anyone read the… you know… the book? I love both kinds of book groups equally, and for the same reason: because they are taking literature as a good starting point for a conversation between friends.

On this tour I have met book clubs large and small, from a delightful group of three work friends in San Diego who had established a clandestine reading chapter as an antidote to a soulless corporate environment, to the gigantic, city-wide book group that is the Santa Monica City Reads program. They chose Little Bee for their book this year, so I was privileged to participate in the most extraordinary event: a big auditorium entirely full of people who had read my novel and come prepared with great questions. There was even a dramatic performance from the book performed by two actresses, and beforehand a group from the Santa Monica Public Library had been out on the city’s street corners, reading excerpts of the book through a megaphone. Under the Californian sunshine, people were talking about literature at bus stops and in shopping malls. At times like these, a writer must seriously ponder whether he might in fact have died and gone to heaven.

On this trip I have met book clubs both studious and lighthearted, young and old, offline and online. I met someone yesterday (she is worth following on Twitter @mawbooks) who belongs to a multinational book group that convenes via a Skype video-conference. Today I am joining in a book group discussion on Twitter with a bunch of people in Holland. And at this evening’s event in Denver I’m sure that once again there will be book groups in the audience, and that they will enjoy each other’s company, exchange notes and swap books, and have the best time. High tech or low tech, book groups are alive and well in these days.

I’d like to say more about how much it means to me when book clubs choose to read my books, and how much I have learned from readers, and how grateful I am for the extraordinary reception that book groups have given to my work – but this flight, like this piece of writing, is on its final approach into the Mile High City, and all portable electronic devices must now be switched off and securely stowed along with your tray tables, which must now be locked in the upright position. So quickly, before I hit Denver (the highest altitude at which a book tour can be performed without requiring supplementary oxygen), please let me just say a heartfelt thank you to book clubs everywhere for keeping good literature alive, whether you read my own books or not.

--Chris Cleave, Author of Little Bee (