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Serious Men: Reflections on My Men’s Book Club

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

Ed Nawotka

Ed Nawotka

Oprah is great for women, but she’s certainly not talking to men. So where’s the equivalent for men?

One of the more gratifying communities that I’ve been a part of for the last seven years is my book club here in Houston, Texas, where I live. What makes it different from most clubs is the fact that it is comprised entirely of men. The age ranges from recent college graduates to retirees. It’s a group of smart, successful people — plenty of bankers, a few real estate brokers, oil and gas executives, as well as several doctors, a tradition that goes back to the club’s origins several decades ago when it was founded by a group of medical residents who decided to meet to discuss what they were reading one night a month when they were all on call.

I’m the only person in the book business — and my other writer or professorial friends I’ve invited to join have politely refused (I assume they prefer to read exclusively on their own?).

What’s been most interesting to me, as someone who works in the book business, is the choice of the books that we read.

The general consensus in the book business is that women read far more than men, especially when it comes to literature and fiction, where women account for as much as 80% of the fiction market. According to a 2012 survey by the National Endowment for the Arts, as discussed by Slate, 64% of women read at least one book in 2012 (with 56% reading at least one literary book), compared to only 45% of men (only 37% read at least one literary book).

Blindness Saramago

My book club’s favorite novel.

My book club, which we call simply “The Men’s Book Club,” is entirely dedicated to fiction. It has ranged from our current selection, World’s End by T.C. Boyle — which was largely seen as having far too many characters and plotlines to be coherent – to Blindness by Jose Saramago, the favorite author of the group. George Saunders is another favorite, as is Per Petersen; we went through a regrettable Chuck Palahniuk phase; and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children was reviled, largely because of what the group perceived to be its loathsome, self-indulgent characters.

We read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, because someone’s wife was reading it and he found it on their bedside table; we read James Dickey’s Deliverance because we have a Burt Reynolds fan in the club; and one of the club’s son’s — a high school freshman — joined us for a discussion of Justin Cronin’s The Passage.

I’ve also found that most of the club members do a bit of internet research before they get to the meeting and come well informed about the author’s history and the cultural and historical context in which the book was published. What they don’t care about is what the critics though, though they have often read some reviews as well. And they could care less about my so-called “professional” opinion of a book. In fact, several titles I’ve loved and reviewed positively — such as Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists — bombed with the club.

What this all tells me is that men, often dismissed by the book business as a secondary market — one that can be satisfied with an array of fat  biographies, political diatribes, Bill O’Reilly/Vince Flynn novels, and war books — might be better marketed to by publishers.

Book clubs, naturally, are a great way to do this. It’s the whole idea behind the startup Librify. The company is a new ebook subscription service aimed directly at book clubs. Founder Joanna Stone Herman, speaking at Digital Book World, said that it is estimated that many as 25 million people are involved in book clubs. These are people, she said “might be described as a drinking group with a reading problem” (and a virtual wine service is a feature of Librify’s site).

But I drinking and socializing isn’t the point of our book club. Sure, beer, wine and whiskey (even the infrequent bottle of Pappy van Winkle) is served, as well as snacks, but we all have to drive home afterward. We go every second Tuesday of the month to see friends, certainly. But we go primarily for the serious book chat.

Why? Because this is a group of men who believe books have something to teach them, can expand their interests and understanding of the world, and take them out of their own narrow lives, and let them share that experience with others.

Isn’t it time publishers take men as seriously as readers as the men take themselves?

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  1. Posted January 27, 2014 at 7:23 am | Permalink

    What an interesting take on books and reading, you present here, Ed. Fortunately for you and your book club, most “literary” fiction that gets published is by men. Fortunate are you as well that most bookstores in airports where many successful men spend some amount of time each month are stocked with those mostly male authors’ books, including literary fiction, mysteries, biographies and history.

    I do understand your assessment of the situation, but I fail to see where men are under served in any way by the publishing industry. To me, a quick review of who is in print shows me men have command. As a publisher, I too find myself seeking out more men. Not because I wouldn’t like to publish good women writers but because of the way things are skewed in the publishing world lots of bad information about what this business is about favors men, as does our culture.

    Book clubs filled with men talking about books is a great idea and one that allows a certain class here to enjoy that time together. Good idea that might be extended to a homeless shelter or a tutoring center where other men not granted such privilege might also benefit from these life changing experiences.

    As you can see, Ed, I’m bumping up against this feeling of Rome burning while many people are reading. I don’t discourage reading, but reading that leads to life changes might also lead us to work together to save the planet together as well. It’s truly a burning issue for us all.

    • Edward Nawotka
      Posted January 27, 2014 at 6:56 pm | Permalink

      Deborah, thanks for this and it would be interesting to look and see what the ratio of male-to-female authors of literary fiction actually is — not based on anecdote, but on research. I’m sure it’s out there. Let’s track it down. But once you include romance in the mix (the dominant genre of fiction dominated by women writers), it would tilt in favor of women. And I have to wonder to what extent the business still favors men, as such. Having worked in publishing, academia and journalism most of my career, I have had primarily women managers/bosses — but almost always at the top was a man. My main objection is that men have been “written off” as a reading public and market. Sure, there are more than enough airport novels to satisfy a certain demographic of reader — but as readers of literary fiction, we’re given Chuck P., when I would prefer Jonathan Tropper — but perhaps that’s just me.

      • Senna
        Posted January 29, 2014 at 5:35 am | Permalink

        You’re right; the stats aren’t hard to find:

        Sure, if you include Romance and YA (which would be sneered at by most so-called connoisseurs of “literature”), the quantity of novel output may be closer to parity or even tilt in favour of women, which makes it ALL THE MORE UNBELIEVABLE that every standard of “quality” in “literature” continues to skew towards men.

        And, why is it that when Nora Roberts’ books are relegated to “romance”, but when Jeffrey Eugenides writes a book about a woman obsessed with marriage, it’s “literature”? Likewise, why was Jane Austen relegated to “light entertainment” for hundreds of years, while Henry James writing on the dilemmas of women being economically dependent on men managed to produce “literature”?

        The book industry, especially for novels scaling that high echelon of “literariness”, continues to be structurally and ideologically skewed towards men. The fact that you think women are dominating is a result of a very slight shift towards equity (but still far from it), that feels like dominance because we’re used to complete male dominance being the equilibrium of the industry.

  2. Lisa
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Lady reader here. Gosh, I’d like to join your book group, I like all the same authors and had all the same opinions. Not 100% in agreement with above poster but she has a point. You guys might try reading some woman authors (besides Claire Messud and “The Help”) that don’t follow the “Eat, Drink, Pray, Love” and “let’s read about NY” formula, and focus on the big themes. I’m thinking Marilyn Robinson’s “Gilead,” those great historical adventure stories by Andrea Barrett, Hillary Mantel, Marianne Wiggins…well, there’s a long list of lady writers that a guy would like. Otherwise it sort of looks like what they say about getting boys to read, that they won’t do it if they think a girl wrote it.

    • Edward Nawotka
      Posted January 27, 2014 at 6:55 pm | Permalink

      Most of the women writers our book club selects are based on “best of” lists. I do think there are plenty that would appeal to our book club. A.M. Holmes immediately comes to mind — pretty much any literary novel that doesn’t feature a blurb that begins with “three generations of women…” which so many seem to do.

  3. Lisa
    Posted January 27, 2014 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    Addendum: Although I have to say–in support of the author–that most agents are women and if you read their webpages if they’re interested in adult fiction it’s usually geared towards women.

  4. Posted January 30, 2014 at 1:41 am | Permalink

    Ed, loved your column. One of my pet peeves is that men don’t read enough of women writers because there is an assumption they write about ‘womanly things’ Here are some that I think your Book Club might find it enjoys- Jennifer Egan- A Visit from the Goon Squad, Margaret Atwood-Oryx and Crake, anything by Ursula le Guin and Patricia Highsmith; and even try a Jane Austen. Good literature speaks to both men and women irrespective of what the gender of the protagonist is!

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