Book Group Bullying

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 ago. 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; naïve 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 ten 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 he 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 thuggish leader was sourly unconvinced and then 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, this boor 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 was being taught in universities across the country with novels by Toni Morrison and Philip Roth.  Or that The Washington Post and other papers had raved about it. I wanted to smack him down.  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)

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14 Responses

  1. May I borrow that word — shmendrik? It fits a couple of people I’ve met so well. At least as bad, but possibly a worse experience for me was when one of my books was similarly attacked by the fellow author who had invited me. My response was simply to Unfriend her 🙂

  2. Use the word in good health!

    Your experience sounds even worse than mine, a sneak attack. Yuk.

  3. Sorry you had such a ghastly experience, Lev. That idiot has clearly failed to learn anything at all about Holocaust survivors and the toll their experiences take on their families. Sheesh! I do like shmendrik, however 🙂 In some ways, living in the middle of nowhere has its advantages.

  4. My book group has a policy of never allowing authors to sit in on our discussions, even if they ask (and some have!). We are an extremely serious, well-read group and want to be able to speak freely. A few times a year, we have special “lit salons” with authors (we just had a fun evening with Cara Black and Jeffrey Siger last week), but those have a completely different vibe–we are there to hear the authors speak about their work, and we ask polite questions, but there are certainly never any harsh critiques because THAT WOULD BE RUDE to the author who kindly took time out of his or her busy schedule to meet us. The guy you describe sounds like he had a strudel in his noodle, to quote the late great Ann Landers.

  5. What a jerk. You were the invited guest. Of course not everyone is going to like, much less understand your book. But bullying is unforgivable, and you didn’t deserve it. There are times to leave the bully to stew in his own juice.

  6. When people strike out like this, I figure that it’s more about them than it is about me. Probably this book group leader was a wannabe writer who had been rejected countless times and who was jealous of your success. And, he took charge of this book club as a way to try to prove his worth to himself.

    When I visit book clubs, I often suggest to the moderator that I come an hour or half hour after the meeting starts, so members can talk freely to each other about the book before my arrival. Then, when I come, they can spend their time asking me questions about the book and my writing life.

    • I like your strategy. I had dome so many appearances around the country and abroad where people were eager to hear what I had to say, I wasn’t prepared for this mugging.

  7. I had a much milder version of the experience the last time I was asked to talk at a local book club. Nobody exactly attacked me, but they seemed to want to discuss my book as if I wasn’t there, which was disconcerting and, quite frankly, a waste of my time. When I did manage to get a few comments in, it became clear that one person in particular was looking for a way to “politely” belittle my book. She chose to compare my novel unfavorably to “The Poisonwood Bible,” the book she had read prior to my book. This actually made me laugh and I proceeded to have a very good time explaining that my books were meant to be entertainment, not literature, that I personally didn’t care for the heavy tone of the Poisonwood Bible, and that I appreciated the wine and food very much and thought I’d go now. I don’t think a single person there knew I was offended by the way the evening went, but I firmly resolved not to talk to any more book clubs.

    • Laura, that is sadly hilarious. What was she thinking?

      I came to the same conclusion under somewhat different circumstances. Why not keep appearing as I have been at libraries, museums, universities, where people want to hear me and I’m paid to speak?

  8. People’s audacity never fails to amaze (or horrify) me. Your kindness – sharing your time and your insights – was returned with rude, unappreciative behavior more befitting a schoolyard bully than a grown man. Shameful!

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