Alexander McCall Smith: The low-down on book clubs (and why quoting Marcel Proust is a good idea)

Why are so few men in book clubs? There are so many book clubs now, but their membership is not as broad as it might be.

Women seem to be drawn to book clubs more than men, says Alexander McCall Smith (Picture: Ian Hargreaves)
Women seem to be drawn to book clubs more than men, says Alexander McCall Smith (Picture: Ian Hargreaves)

Book clubs are predominantly female and their membership is often drawn from those with a higher education, who have a professional background, or have time at their disposal. Several aspects of that profile are to be regretted. Book clubs have as much to offer people who do not have those advantages in life. Book clubs should be for everybody.

Including men. There are certainly book clubs in which the membership embraces both men and women, but they seem to be in the minority. This may reflect the fact that women read more than men, or at least read more fiction, which tends to be the staple reading of many book clubs.

If you regard the salon as the precursor of the contemporary book club, then the great salons were run by women, to whom the role of literary hostess seemed to come naturally. Of course, there is no reason why men should not run salons, but they tend not to. Perhaps it has something to do with the nature of conversation in male and female circles. Men like to address one another; they like to advance and defend positions; they are less comfortable and courteous listeners, perhaps, than women are.

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There might be another reason lurking in the background. A book club discussion of a book as often as not involves the exchange of subjective reactions. Could it be that men are less confident in the revealing their subjective feelings than women are? This is deep stereotype territory, but is interesting nonetheless. It probably depends on culture and age. Younger men seem to be less inhibited about these things than older men. In Scotland there is a whole older generation of men who are still buttoned up when it comes to talking about feelings.

Fortunately, that is changing, but there are still many men who have spent too much of their lives being tough, fascinated by football, and not showing their emotions. Book clubs could help in their liberation, particularly if the books expose members to world-views they may not have encountered before. A man might go into a book club and emerge reconstructed – a new man. Or he may not, of course.

Becoming a book club member poses its challenges. Many clubs are competitive. They may assure the potential member that they are easy about the choice of books – “Don’t worry, nobody’s going to judge you” – but this is often completely untrue. The members of book clubs I have known are very judgemental. They look very closely at the books chosen by other members, and say things like, “Of course I knew she’d choose something like that”.

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In particular, many members feel they have to choose something intellectually impressive. They may be dying to read the latest frothy chick-lit offering, but feel they must propose, instead, something safely in the unreadable section of the Booker Prize long-list. Some book clubs go so far as to insist they only read so-called literary novels. This means that anything enjoyable is more or less excluded in favour of books with the right street credentials.

Every book club has at least one member who is an unacknowledged genius. This member has read more than anybody else, has a more developed aesthetic sense, and has a brow that is distinctly higher than average for the club. This member’s choice, dreaded by all the other members, will inevitably be a work translated from the Estonian, and available only after an exhausting search of the more obscure corners of the literary internet.

“A second-hand copy costs £43? Worth every penny, I assure you. This novel is dünamiit (Estonian for dynamite)”. Such members also have penchant for choosing misery memoirs, where the author has suffered far more than even the worst authors deserve to suffer. (There is a widespread belief that authors should suffer if they are to be credible. I remember speaking to a community college English class in Michigan where the first question I was asked came from a young man at the back of the class. He raised a hand and said, “Have you suffered?” The second question, incidentally, was equally unexpected. It was, “Do you like wild mushrooms?” Perhaps they had been studying deconstruction, but these were students who were clearly going to be valuable book-club participants.)

There is a way of dealing with annoying know-all members of your book club. This has proved to be highly effective, and it involves quoting Proust to them. They are usually not prepared for this and can be silenced quite easily through the judicious use of a Proustian quote. A good one is to say, “Of course, Proust believed, as you know, of course, that steamships insult the dignity of distance”. That stops the know-alls in their tracks and kills any discussion stone-dead. They will not know that, but will be too embarrassed to confess their ignorance.

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The quote can be used in any circumstances, and not just in a discussion of a book in which steamships occur. It is wise, though, to have other Proust quotes up your sleeve to bring out when required. I have a concordance of Proust’s work, which details his remarks on a very wide range of subjects – including steamships – and this means that in order to quote Proust I do not have to read him – which I hasten to say, I enjoy anyway. Everybody knows what he said about madeleine cakes, so keep off that one, but don’t hesitate to refer, even quite frequently, to his views on steamships.

Was Proust in a book club? That is a very interesting question. Bring it up at the next meeting of your own book club. Await the discussion. It’s just the sort of thing that people like to talk about.

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