10 tips for discussion at your book club, especially if you didn’t like the book

Even for Twitter, this was shocking.

An author was invited to a book club to talk about her new novel. At the meeting, one of the members spoke up to note how vehemently she had disliked the book.

“When invited to a book club I don’t expect only positive feedback,” the author tweeted, “but hearing ‘I hated your book. HATED it. It was full of stupid characters doing stupid things. I only read it for the meeting,’ felt a little harsh.”

The author tried to put a humorous spin on it, but it clearly bothered her. And why wouldn’t it? To do that to a writer — or to anyone about their work — is cruel.

(How did the author respond? “That’s OK, I don’t like every book I read. I hope you enjoy the next one you pick up.” She added, “I never say, ‘I’m sorry.’”)

This might be a good time to talk about how to discuss books in a book club, whether or not the author is present.

Be civil. That, of course, is Rule No. 1 for any group encounter.

Ask, don’t tell. Posing your concerns and observations as questions rather than decrees opens up the conversation instead of shutting it down. Instead of saying, “The main character was a jerk,” consider asking, “Why did the main character have so many problems with his mother?”

Analyze your emotions. A strong reaction to a book — either positive or negative — usually means that the book has power. Instead of giving in to your emotions, examine what it was in the text that made you respond so strongly.

Don’t say you ‘hated’ the book. Even if you did. Try to analyze why you disliked the book. What didn’t work for you? And might the writer have done this intentionally? Why?

Don’t say you ‘hated’ the characters. Even if you did. Were you supposed to dislike them? What made them the way they are? Despicable characters can be fascinating, and it’s almost certain that the writer worked hard to create them that way. Think about why.

Remember that ‘like’ and ‘dislike’ aren’t really the point. While we all want to enjoy books we read, in a book club discussion whether or not you liked a book is beside the point. Try talking about what worked, or what didn’t work. What confused you? What made you laugh? Where did you get lost? Which sentences did you go back and reread for their beauty?

Consider the title, the opening, the ending. Remember that all of these things are authorial choices. What does the title mean? Why did the book start where it did? Why did it end where it did?

Try not to take things personally. We invest a lot of time in reading a book, and the characters can get under your skin. If someone praises a book that left you cold, be respectful in your response. Crushing the book may feel to your book club friend like you’re crushing them.

Try to meet the authors where they are. In other words, try to understand why they did what they did. What was their intent? Their larger point? Talk about whether or not they succeeded.

And if you are lucky enough to have an author come to your book club, don’t tell them you hated their book. Not to their face, not on Twitter, not at all. Even if you did.

Do you have other suggestions? What works in your book discussions? Write me at [email protected]