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May 5, 2010


Posted by Dana

Today's guest post by Leah Stewart, author of HUSBAND AND WIFE tackles the issue of whether or not fiction has anything to teach women.  I for one agree with her wholeheartedly that it does, and can only assume that the woman who made the (dare I say) rude and opposing statement to her had either never taken an English class or been in a book club or maybe she was just having a really bad hair day.

husbandandwife.jpgThe other day I was talking to a woman who was interested in the subject of my new book—infidelity, marriage with small children, the impact of motherhood on a woman’s identity—until she realized the book was fiction. “It’s just a made-up novel,” she said. “It doesn’t have anything to teach women.”

I didn’t argue with her at the time. (I was stunned into saying nothing but a polite goodbye.) But I’ve been arguing with her in my head ever since. The case I’ve been making on behalf of the “made-up novel” and what it has to teach women (and men, too) has me thinking about my experience of book clubs, which frequently look to fiction to provoke conversation. What are book clubs if not proof that even in this age of reality overdose we still look to works of the imagination to tell us something about the world?

For some time now I’ve had professional reasons to be grateful to and for book clubs. I’ve been invited many times to talk about my work to groups of women who’d read it. I’ve been offered meals and wine and chocolate desserts, and once, at a Christmas-time meeting, I was even included inn a gift swap game. (I still have my prize, a set of funky dessert plates.) But more importantly than booze and sugar and prizes, I was offered a chance to participate in a different kind of conversation about my work. In the normal course of things, you write a book, and if you’re lucky you get it out there, and then you wait around a while before reading assessments of that book from strangers. Did you succeed? Did you fail? All manner of people line up to tell you. But not at book clubs. At book clubs they tell you what your book made them think about, and what it made them feel.

Because my last book was about friendship, the women I met told me about their own friendships. The women who betrayed them, the women they betrayed, the women they can’t get in touch with no matter how much effort they make, the women they’ve stayed friends with for twenty years. Some people told me these stories with tears in their eyes. Some with anger. Some with regret, or nostalgia, or hope of reconnecting. Like any experts in a field, writers often want to be appreciated for the nuances they themselves have learned to admire—a perfect turn of phrase, intellectually hefty thematic concerns, subtlety of characterization. But over and over I had the privilege of seeing that my book had provoked a range of emotional responses, often powerful ones, and isn’t that the fundamental thing writers want? Or, at least, isn’t that what we wanted when we started writing, to recreate in others all the things we felt when we first read the books we loved?

About a year ago some friends invited me to join their book group. I hesitated for a while. Between teaching and my own work, I spend so much time thinking and talking about fiction I wasn’t sure I wanted to add one more occasion for that to the list. I was also afraid I’d struggle to talk about books the way they did, that I’d be thinking about the use of the point of view while the group was talking about whether they liked the protagonist. I was afraid I’d sound pompous and pedantic every time I opened my mouth, like I was trying to turn their meetings into one of my classes. I decided I would go, once or twice, and see how it went. The first time we discussed Ann Patchett’s Run, and as I’d predicted I wanted to talk about a narrative choice, but kept my mouth shut while the group discussed interracial adoption and one member’s personal experience of it. This was definitely not how I’d been talking about books in the last fifteen years. What I wanted to talk about was a very technical aspect of the novel’s structure, but when I finally made some comment about it they looked at me a little blankly and then the discussion moved on.

I went back, though, because I liked the social aspect, and I was interested in the next book on their list. And I went back again, and again, and the more I go the less I worry about my own urge to “teach” the other members something about the construction of fiction, and the more I appreciate, instead, what I’m learning from them. Or not learning, so much, as relearning. I used to puzzle over quotes from famous writers who said they didn’t read much—how could you be a writer and not read? I understand the sentiment now. Once you cross over the line between reader and writer very few books can transcend your awareness of how they were made, and so completely transport you out of yourself. I think this explains my profound, endearing love of Pride and Prejudice—because it’s a brilliant novel I loved as a kid, so it transports me to a time and a state of mind when reading was a pure, intense pleasure, uncomplicated by work.

Book club has reminded me what it was like to read books before I thought all the time about how to write them. The other members don’t write or teach writing. They read and respond. They say, “I didn’t like that character,” and I don’t need to say, “Well, let’s not talk about like or dislike, let’s talk about how well the character was constructed.” I’m freed up to say, “Yeah, I didn’t like her either.” I continue to spend more time thinking about technical choices than the rest of the members do—I can’t turn that kind of evaluation off entirely—but when I read the book club books I relax. I, like the other members, want to be entertained. I want to be moved, inspired, and yes, even enlightened. I want to talk about what I learned that I didn’t already know about the world, about the aspects of my personal life the book made me consider, about interracial adoption, or motherhood, or infidelity, or what it would be like to be married to George Bush. In those discussions I get to be nothing but a reader, and I’m grateful for that. And the writer part of me is grateful, too, for the evidence that that woman I talked to was wrong—that “made-up novels” do matter, that we are all, writers and readers, participating in a conversation, connected, and giving each other reason to appreciate another day.

-- Leah Stewart, Author