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2024 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

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Saturday, February 14, 2009

My Very First Guest Post: A Conversation With Joshua Henkin

Chances are, you've heard the name Joshua Henkin. You know, the one who's been promoting the heck out of his book Matrimony. He's also been vocal about the importance of book clubs, keeping the book industry alive, and the power of book bloggers. The man obviously loves books and writing - watch out, his enthusiasm is contagious!

I've never had an author guest post before, so I'm excited to have Josh chat with us today. If his words sound familiar, you probably read them when he originally posted at Books on the Brain. I'm "reprinting" the post here with his permission. I think he makes some interesting observations about book clubs, especially in the 8th paragraph. What do you think?

P.S. If you haven't snagged a copy of Matrimony yet, leave a comment on this post for your chance to win. I'll choose a winner on February 28. Even if you already have the book, I'd love to know your thoughts about what Josh has to say.

P.S.S. Stay tuned for my review of Matrimony, which will be up tomorrow. Happy Valentine's Day, everybody!

These days, when my four-year-old daughter sees me putting on my coat, she says, “Daddy, are you going to a book group or just a reading?” My daughter doesn’t really know what a book group is, but in that phrase “just a reading” she has clearly absorbed my own attitude, which is that, given the choice between giving a public reading and visiting a book group, I would, without hesitation, choose the latter.

I say this as someone who has never been in a book group (I’m a novelist and a professor of fiction writing, so my life is a book group), and also as someone who, when my new novel MATRIMONY was published last October, never would have imagined that, seven months later, I’d have participated in approximately forty book group discussions (some in person, some by phone, some on-line), with fifteen more scheduled in the months ahead. And this is while MATRIMONY is still in hardback. With the paperback due out at the end of August, my life might very well become a book group.

Part of this is due to the fact that my novel is particularly suited to book groups. MATRIMONY is about a marriage (several marriages, really), and it takes on issues of infidelity, career choice, sickness and health, wealth and class, among other things. There is, in other words, a good deal of material for discussion, which is why my publisher, Pantheon/Vintage, has published a reading groups guide and why MATRIMONY has been marketed to book groups.

But I am really part of a broader phenomenon, which is that, as The New York Times noted a few months ago, publishers—and authors—are beginning to recognize the incredible clout of book groups. I recently was told that an estimated five million people are members of book groups, and even if that estimate is high, there’s no doubt that book groups have the power to increase a novel’s sales, often exponentially. I’m talking not just about Oprah’s book group, but about the web of book groups arrayed across the country that communicate with one another by word of mouth, often without even realizing it.

I make no bones about this: I participate in book group discussions of MATRIMONY in order to sell more copies of my book. But there’s a paradox here. On several occasions, I’ve driven over four hours round-trip to join a book group discussion of MATRIMONY. You add enough of these trips together and it’s not surprising that my next novel, which was due at the publisher last month, is nowhere near complete. I have spent the last year publicizing MATRIMONY as a way of furthering my writing life (writers need to sell books in order to survive), and yet what I love to do most—write—has had to be placed on hold.

I say this without a trace of resentment. I lead a charmed life. I get to write novels and have other people read them, and if I, like most writers, need to do more than was once required of us to ensure that people read our books—if writers now are more like musicians—then so be it. And in the process, thanks to book groups, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting far more readers than I could have imagined and have learned a lot more than I expected.

So I want to speak up on behalf of book groups, and to offer a few cautions, and a few hopes. First the good news. From coast to coast and in between, I’ve found a huge number of careful readers from all ages and backgrounds who have noticed things about my novel that I myself hadn’t noticed, who have asked me questions that challenge me, and who have helped me think about my novel (and the next novel I’m working on) in ways that are immensely helpful. I’ve certainly learned more from book groups than from the critics, not because book group members are smarter than the critics (though often they are!), but because there’s more time for sustained discussion with a book group, and because for many people the kind of reading they do for a book group marks a significant departure from the rest of their lives, and so they bring to the enterprise a great degree of passion.

Speaking of passion: I don’t want to give away what happens in MATRIMONY, but something takes place toward the middle of the book that has, to my surprise and pleasure, spawned shouting matches in a number of book groups. I haven’t been one of the shouters, mind you, but I’ve been struck by the fact that MATRIMONY has proven sufficiently controversial to make readers exercised. I’ve been trying to determine patterns. Sometimes the divisions have been drawn along age lines; other times along lines of gender—on those few occasions when there is another man in the room besides myself! Which leads me to my hopes, and my cautions. First, where are all the men? True, my novel is called MATRIMONY, but men get married too, at more or less the same rate as women do. Yet my experience has been that women read fiction and men read biographies of civil war heroes. And women join book groups and men don’t. Yet those few co-ed book groups I’ve attended have been among the most interesting. And if, as seems to be the case, book groups have led to an increase in reading in a culture that otherwise is reading less and less, it would be nice to see more men get in on the act.

Second, if I were allowed to redirect book group discussions, I would urge the following. Less discussion about which characters are likable (think of all the great literature populated by unlikable characters. Flannery O’Connor’s stories. The novels of Martin Amis. Lolita.), less of a wish for happy endings (Nothing is more depressing than a happy ending that feels tacked on, and there can be great comfort in literature that doesn’t admit to easy solutions, just as our lives don’t.), less of a wish that novels make arguments (Readers often ask me what conclusions MATRIMONY draws about marriage, when the business of novels isn’t to draw conclusions. That’s the business of philosophy, sociology, economics, and political science. The business of the novelist is to tell a story and to make characters come sufficiently to life that they feel as real to the reader as the actual people in their lives.) But this is all part of a longer and more complicated discussion—perhaps one we can have in a book group!

Finally, if I were a benign despot I’d make a rule that no book can be chosen if over half the members of the group have already heard of it. This would take care of the biggest problem I’ve seen among book groups, which is that everyone’s reading the same twelve books. Eat, Pray, Love. The Memory Keeper’s Daughter. Water for Elephants. Kite Runner. I’m not criticizing these books, some of which I haven’t even read. I’m simply saying that there are a lot of great books out there that people don’t know about. There is a feast-or-famine culture in the world of books (just as in the world of non-books), such that fewer and fewer books have more and more readers. This is not the fault of book groups but is a product of a broader and more worrisome problem, brought on by (among other things) the demise of the independent bookstore and the decrease in book review pages. For that reason, it has become harder and harder for all but a handful of books to get the attention they deserve.


  1. Haven't read this book yet, but I would love to have it. Along with Mr. Henkin, I regret the loss of so many independent bookstores, and the lack of book reviews in the newspapers. Thank goodness for book blogs.

  2. I'd also love to get the book. Happy Valentine's Day!

  3. I've heard so much about this book on other book blogs. (all good so far).
    I appreciate his take on book clubs too. As someone who is head of book club I got to say how hard it is to pick a book. A lot of the women just like to read, not love. So we try to find something to appeal to everyone. Since its thru our church we also have certain standards.
    On a side note this book is not available at my library but I have requested for it be purchased.

  4. I interested the book. If I have time, I will buy and read it

  5. I'm also hosting a giveaway of Matrimony on my blog to coincide with Valentine's Day - the deadline is 2/15 - so feel free to stop by and enter to increase your chances. :)

    Great guest post, and I'm looking forward to your review tomorrow. (If I get off the computer, I might have a chance of finishing it tonight.)

  6. Laura - I'm part of a church book club, too, so I know what you're talking about. If you're LDS, I probably would not recommend this one for your book club as it is definitely not a clean read. It has lots of profanity, drug use, sex, etc. I really wish there was more good, clean fiction out there, especially the kind that appeals to everyone. It would make things a lot easier for Mormon/Christian book club leaders :)

  7. I'll throw my name in for a copy, although I'm disappointed in that it isn't cleaner. I, too, wish there were a better selection of compelling & clean books (or even well written Christian ones).

  8. I haven't read it yet and it's been on my TBR list for a long time now. I've heard nothing but great things about it. Please enter me!!

  9. Hi, everyone. Joshua Henkin here, the author, saying hi and happy Valentine's Day to you all, and a big thank you to Susan for holding the giveaway. As always, if your book group would like to discuss MATRIMONY and would like me to participate in the discussion, please contact me through my website, and I'd be delighted to set something up with you. Good luck to all of you in the drawing, and if you're not the lucky winner, I hope you'll buy a copy of MATRIMONY anyway. You'll help keep me off the streets!

  10. I've heard nothing but good things about this book, so I'm definitely interested in reading it.

  11. I actually haven't heard about this yet, but it sounds very interesting! Now I want it! I agree with him, that there are too many good books that don't get read, and that's sad.

  12. oooh, I'd love to be entered to win this book.

  13. Oh... I'm so intrigued. Mr. Henkin sounds so insightful... I love his take on book clubs.

    And I love that he popped back onto this post to leave personal remarks!!

    Would love the chance to win this... and if I don't... I WILL do my part to keep Mr. Henkin off the streets by buying the book!

    alisonsannouncements at yahoo dot com


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