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Lev Raphael Headshot

Book Group B.S.

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The publishing industry is always pushing something new as the Holy Grail of promotion. Right now it's social media; a few years ago, it was being social: speaking to book groups via Skype or in person.

A colleague's recent bad experience with a book group reminded me of my own a few years back. I had toured extensively in the U.S. and abroad for many of my books, but hadn't done book groups based on what people in them told me they disliked: the gossip; naïvete and sometimes inane discussions; more focus on food than literature. When I was invited to speak about my novel The German Money five minutes away from where I live, though, it seemed churlish to say no to spending an hour or two on a Sunday evening talking about a book I loved.

The group of 10 women and one man seemed interested to hear about the book's genesis, but within minutes, the male leader was on the attack, telling me every single thing he thought was wrong with the book. It was relentless.

The book is partly a love song to northern Michigan, but the book maven didn't like the descriptions of Michigan because they weren't specific enough or "artistic" enough for his taste. I pointed out that the first person narrator was not an Annie Dillard type and the descriptions reflected his specific vision and his voice.

The leader was sourly unconvinced, and then he bashed the main character as needing to "grow up." Well, the story's about a dysfunctional family of children of a Holocaust survivor, and they're all struggling with their dark inheritance. That cut no ice with him: he didn't believe having that kind of horror in the heart of one's family would be at all problematic. I was astonished at his lack of empathy.

Then this shmendrik added he didn't like the fact that the New York sections of the book were set in several apartments -- that felt claustrophobic to him. I reminded him that most Manhattanites live in apartment buildings, not ranch houses, Colonials or split-levels. But he didn't care.

There were other snarky comments from the group, but his were the most insulting. Now, I was a guest, so I never told him how rude his behavior was, or that some of his remarks verged on the sophomoric. But I did have to wonder why he'd bothered getting his group to read the novel at all since he had such a low opinion of it. Was the whole point to show off to these women how macho he was?

It got worse: The day after I was mugged, he emailed me negative comments he claimed the group made about the book after I left. Apparently the people who really disliked the book were too intimidated by my presence to say so -- at least that's what he reported.

I was tempted to tell him that the book had been taught more than once in college courses with novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth. Or that The Washington Post and other papers had raved about it. But I didn't bother replying. At the back of my mind was the warning of a good friend trying to talk her author husband out of writing an angry email to a critic: "Listen, do you want to do good work or do you want to be known as a crazy person?"

This blog is drawn from Book Lust! (Essays for Book Lovers)