READABLE VS. DISCUSSABLE
Posted by: Ted Balcom
A friend told me recently about a discussion she led that didn’t go well. “They hated the book!” she said, referring to her group, which has been meeting at the local library for many years. “They said it was the worst book I’ve ever asked them to read. They said they could hardly get through it. But what really upset me was that they refused to discuss it.” The book was a prizewinner, The Accidental, by British novelist Ali Smith. It received the Whitbread Award for Best Novel and was also a finalist for the Man Booker Prize, the Orange Prize, and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. The cover glows with quotes from the critics, who call the book “astonishing…vivid and affecting” (The New York Times); “completely captivating…devilishly lovely” (The Boston Globe); “beautifully executed…delightful” (The New York Observer); “persistently sparkling…it casts a spell” (The Atlantic Monthly). No one in the book group came even remotely close to agreeing with the critics. They found the book extremely offensive because it was written in an avant garde style, contained graphic sexual descriptions, and centered on five unpleasant, seemingly unsympathetic characters (a promiscuous husband, his self-absorbed wife and their two maladjusted children, plus a strange, rather hostile woman who visits them in their vacation home and becomes involved in bizarre ways with each of them, even though none of them knows her from any past association and all of them blithely assume she has been invited by one of the others). All discussion leaders who have been at it for a while probably have had this same experience – where we’ve picked a recommended book and it turned out that no one in the group really liked it very much, in spite of the fact that it came bearing a great reputation. What my friend learned from her bleak experience is that her group doesn’t want to invest in discussing a book that they didn’t enjoy reading. In other words, in selecting a book for this group, she has to find a title with content provocative enough to elicit discussion, but it can’t be so off-putting that it tips the scales of reader interest too far in the opposite direction. Actually, it’s a valuable lesson for all discussion leaders to think about as they choose titles for their groups. If our readers decide they don’t want to finish the book because they don’t think it’s worth their time, they won’t want to talk about it, either — in fact, they won’t be able to, since they won’t know enough about it to effectively contribute to the discussion. All of this makes the discussion leader’s job a little more challenging than perhaps we previously thought.