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June 24, 2008

Catherine O'Flynn: Reading Groups I Have Known

Posted by carol
Today's guest blogger is Catherine O'Flynn, the author of What Was Lost, the story of a young girl's disappearance in Birmingham, England, and how the unsolved mystery still reverberates two decades later. Catherine talks about how she was almost a member of a reading group and reveals the 10 things she has learned from speaking with book clubs about her debut novel. Click here to watch a video of Catherine discussing What Was Lost.

I think it's safe to say that I've enjoyed more success with reading groups as a writer than as a reader. That shouldn't be interpreted as a boast; my single experience as a reading group member was, like many of my experiences, short lived and baffling. I was living in Spain at the time and saw a poster in the local library for an English-speaking book group. The group was well-established and met in the same bar on the same day each month. I went along to a meeting and met the six or so women that made up the group and who were as pleasant and welcoming as you might hope.

I went away and diligently read the first 500 pages of Don Quixote as instructed. I returned the next month, but no one else showed up. A month later it was still just me, the equally puzzled bar-owner and a tired-looking leg of jamon. Despite the fact that we lived in a small town I never saw any of the women again. The only possible conclusion is that I was such an appalling prospect as a reading group member that they not only disbanded the group but also all relocated to another part of the world, possibly changing their identities along the way. I never could bring myself to finish Don Quixote.

The beauty of being a writer, of course, is that I only ever attend one meeting of each book group, and so if I am continuing to wreak this devastating havoc on literary clubs, I at least don't know about it. Since What Was Lost came out in the UK last year I've spoken to many reading groups --- lots in libraries, some in shops, a few in peoples' homes, one in a medieval guild hall, and one, inevitably given the book's setting, in a disused unit in a shopping mall.

Here are ten things I've learned about reading groups:

  1. There is always food and drink. This feels vaguely transgressive given that the meetings are often in libraries or shops where eating and drinking are otherwise prohibited.

  2. The food may range from delicious home made soup and cakes to a few stale biscuits but somewhere, at some point, the Doritos will always emerge.

  3. I've yet to find a reading group that hasn't read The Kite Runner. I'm investigating a link between Khaled Hosseini and Doritos.

  4. There is always one member of the reading group who hasn't finished the book. The rest of the group will spend the whole session carefully avoiding giving the ending away.

  5. The ending is always given away.

  6. Although it varies from group to group, in general, women book group members outnumber men by a ratio of roughly 10 to 1; retired members outnumber working members 2 to 1.

  7. Despite this, the average 60-year-old female reading group member has no difficulty in empathizing with the character of a little girl detective, or a young male security guard, or a bored music store manager, or indeed it seems with anyone at any point in time.

  8. It seems then that preconceptions about target markets and genre preferences are not terribly useful.

  9. It's almost as if readers are not faceless constituents of a demographic but individuals with imaginations.

  10. I suspect some don't even like Doritos.

---Catherine O'Flynn