What Book Clubs Are Teaching Me
Written by
Sheila Grinell
July 2016
Written by
Sheila Grinell
July 2016


My novel, Appetite, has been out in the world for three months, and I’ve met with two book clubs in person (not by Skype). Six more clubs have invited me to join them next fall and winter, including the club to which I’ve belonged for over ten years. (The woman who will facilitate my club’s discussion said to me, “At first I was reluctant to discuss a friend’s novel, but this is actually a good book.” High praise.) Although my two clubs differed in process and membership, I picked up the same message from both.

            Club A met in a private home and was co-ed (well, several husbands had also read the book); the twelve people present talked loosely for an hour. Club B met at a library, and the conversation among the fifteen women present was led by a skilled moderator. The majority of the members of both groups were women over 50, and they were lovely, thoughtful people. Both groups asked similar questions about my writing process—questions like those posed at my bookstore readings—but mostly they wanted to talk about the characters and their motivations. It seems my readers divide into two camps, though. Let me set the stage.

            Appetite is about the conflict between generations on what constitutes love, marriage, and success. When 25-year-old Jenn Adler comes home from a year in India with a guru whom she plans to marry, her parents object. Jenn and her fiancé want to build a chain of schools in India based on his philosophy. Jenn’s father, Paul, thinks she deserves better. Her mother, Maggie, fears Jenn will end up alone in an alien. The reader watches Paul and Maggie struggle, with the world and each other, as the wedding day approaches.

            Camp 1: About 60% of my book club readers sympathized with the parents’ anguish over their daughter’s pending marriage. They know it’s tricky to be the parent of an adult, to keep your hopes and fears in order while the child-adult makes crucial decisions. Camp 2: The other 40% said things like, “Why can’t the parents see that the young people are happy? What’s wrong with wanting to run an NGO in a developing country?” Neither age nor gender predicted which position a reader took (granted, my male sample was small). In fact, the most adamant supporter of the young couple was seventy-three! I took no sides; I was simply grateful that both camps found both the Boomer parents and the Millennial kids compelling.

            Here’s the message I take away: every creative writing teacher who said “leave room for the reader” was right on. My job as a writer is not to try to force a specific interpretation of events, but rather to present a nuanced slice of life from which the reader can create a personal experience. Readers are creators, too. The writer’s job is to enable each reader to make his or her own interpretation, and to find it deeply satisfying. A tall order, but that’s why we write.


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  • Thank you for sharing your insight, and for the reminder to "leave room for the reader.' ~:0)

  • Karen Burns

    I've done more than 12 book clubs (all in person) for my novel, The Paris Effect, and have also learned that readers fall into two camps. For lack of better terms, I will call them "liberal" and "conservative." The liberal ones are more sympathetic to my protagonist's plight and choices. They feel her pain. The conservatives are far more judgmental. They think she needs to buck up. I'm sorry to use such loaded terms but this is really what I've observed! On the bright side, it makes for some very lively discussions. I have learned a lot.

    Also, like Sheila, I have not been able to discern by age or sex who is going to have what reaction (though the women over 70 have tended to be more judgmental.....). 

  • Michelle Cox

    Enjoyed this, Sheila!  "Leaving room for the reader" is feedback I've gotten as well.  To trust them more.  I love this concept, and you've provided a wonderful example.

  • Monica Starkman

    "That's why we write'.  So many reasons for that one,  but this post certainly points out a main one.  One of the great pleasures for an author is seeing how the same text of their novel sets off different perceptions in different readers. And one is constantly surprised.  For example, I thought my novel The End of Miracles , a  psychological suspense rooted in a vulnerable woman's deep desire to bear a child,  would resonate mainly with women.  I was wrong.  Men have written a variety of positive comments, including generalizing it to the consequences of obsession, or valuing how it deepened their understanding of a relative's infertility, or enjoying the medical thriller aspect of it.  Fiction is so powerful:   that's why we are hooked on it, both as writers and readers.