NYR iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Melanie Benjamin

Melanie Benjamin

Posted: July 13, 2010 02:10 PM

One of the great pleasures of being an author today is speaking with book clubs. This is something that Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte totally missed out on, and I, for one, feel sorry for them. There is nothing better than discussing your book with a room full of passionate readers. I learn something new about my own novel from every single one.

Meeting in person is fun, although dangerous to one's health & fitness. Book clubs tend to drink a lot, and eat a lot and when you're meeting with one or two a week, well -- author beware! Extra pounds and hangovers are suddenly occupational hazards.

More fun, however, is the phone call.

Clad in whatever I'm wearing at the time -- sweatpants, PJ's, whatever -- I can plop down in a comfy spot, dial the number and just start chatting away. I love to imagine those faraway readers gathered eagerly around a speaker phone; is it a group made up of young mothers? Old friends who have been meeting every month for years? The occasional male voice always startles and delights me; is it some new husband, still in the honeymoon stage, roped into attending with his wife?

I equally enjoy wondering what they think of me. Do I sound like an author of historical fiction? Or do I sound like a teenage boy, as I secretly suspect? In short, I enjoy the element of mystery surrounding the phone call; I think it's somewhat like listening to old time radio programs, where everyone sat and gazed at the radio as if it was a character itself. I imagine a group of women sitting around a speaker phone and staring at it, in much the same way -- painting pictures in their minds of who the author behind the curtain really is.

I also cannot deny that I love not having to dress up, put on lipstick, do my hair. I am a somewhat casual person in real life, which is one of the great blessings of being paid to stay home and sit behind your computer all day long.

However, there is a sinister element at work now, threatening to take away the joy that is the book club phone call. And that sinister element is known as "Skype."

I was recently asked if I had a Skype account, as a club would love to video chat with me instead of relying on old-fashioned speaker phone technology. Merrily, I replied, "What a great idea! Let me see about that!" For I don't have a Skype account, but could easily arrange one. I also don't have a video camera on my laptop, but my husband does.

And then I said, "Wait a second." For my brain caught up with my mouth, and all the horrors of Skype became evident.

For starters, I would have to look nice. No longer could I come in from my evening walk, my hair a mess, my T-shirt a little sweaty, and plop down on the sofa with phone in hand. Now, I would have to plan ahead; I would have to shower after the walk, do my hair and -- gasp! -- put on makeup. All things that no male author would have to do, of course, but female authors are held to a different standard.

I would have to put on nice clothes -- at least from the waist up. I would have to clean out a spot so that the book club in Tucson or Memphis or wherever would not see that I haven't dusted my house in a couple of weeks. I would feel compelled to set the stage; throw out the In Style magazines and that celebrity autobiography I accidentally found myself reading, and arrange a nice little display of classics that I've never read, but feel that people would have expected me to. (You know -- Ulysses, A Confederacy of Dunces, War and Peace.)

I'd have to arrange good lighting, so that my older face would match my younger voice. I would have to experiment with camera angles, so that my nostrils wouldn't frighten whatever small children might be in the room.

And then, I'd have to look at all of them, gathered anxiously around their little video camera as well. I'm sure we'd all appear artificial and stiff to each other, not at all as we would be if we were actually in the same room. Most conversations with book clubs last at least half an hour; that's a long time to stare at a person staring at a tiny camera.

Worse, no longer would we be able to let our imagination take over; now our memories of the meeting would not be enhanced by mystery. Instead, they would most likely remember only my flaring nostrils or large pores; I would most likely remember the stray bit of dip on someone's shoulder that inevitably ended up in the center of the camera's range, as stray bits of dip tend to do.

I decided, then, to take a stand against Skype.

"No, I'm afraid I can't get an account," I regretfully told the very nice book club organizer, who couldn't have been more understanding. We went ahead and scheduled the call anyway, and had a lovely time chatting.

I was in my sweat pants; I have no idea what they were wearing.

But it certainly sounded as if they were a very fashionable group of women, indeed.


 

Follow Melanie Benjamin on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MelanieBen