I joined a book club for the first time in the late 1980s in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Back then, Park Slope was still a new frontier of dilapidated brownstones and streets littered with empty crack vials. Book clubs, too, were a new frontier. I’d never even heard of such a thing the day I saw a sign for one at my local ATM. A book club? Where members read books? To an English major and a full-time writer, that sounded pretty dreamy. I called the number at the bottom of the sign, and a couple weeks later walked into the apartment of Pete and Karen May, a dermatologist and an opera singer who had just moved to the neighborhood and wanted to make friends who loved to read, like they did.
Pete wasn’t the only guy in our book club. There was also Doug, a young copywriter at Scholastic with a burning desire to read the classics. Maybe because none of us knew anything about how these things worked, it never occurred to me that males and book clubs aren’t always simpatico. Somehow—and our process is kind of fuzzy to me now—we took turns selecting books, among them a biography of Montgomery Clift, Doris Lessing’s Diary of a Good Neighbor and If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin. Doug had us read Emile Zola; Pete chose John Cheever’s Falconer. It didn’t strike me then, nor does it now, that their selections were particularly male. In fact, our book club of eight, never even discussed gender.
Perhaps this is why, when I formed a fictional book club for my new novel, The Book That Matters Most, it didn’t occur to me to leave men out of it. True, in the almost 30 years since I walked into that book club in Park Slope, I have visited hundreds of book clubs around the country and I can count on three fingers how many times a man was in one of them. And that’s including the husband of the hostess who felt compelled to join in only as a matter of etiquette.
There are some all-male book clubs in which manly books like The Things They Carried or Nobody’s Fool are read. “We do not read so-called chick lit,” Andrew McCullough, a member of the eponymously named Man Book Club, has said. In fact, the club’s website states its criteria as: “No books by women about women (our cardinal rule).” An all-male book club that meets in a Boston bookstore not only chooses manly books to read, but offers single malt whisky and cigars during the discussion.
When I was writing The Book That Matters Most, I asked male friends of mine if they’d ever been in a book club. Most of them answered no, and those who had were in co-ed book clubs rather than gender-exclusive ones. But none of them lasted very long. They didn’t like the books or the discussion or the lack of discussion. And women I spoke to claimed that a male changed the mix too much. “Men have a way of taking over the conversation,” one told me.
Fiction writers have to make a lot of decisions for the sake of plot. I wanted my main character, Ava, to have a romance. And I wanted her to also make a new friend who was male to help her trust men again after her divorce. That meant my fictional book club had to have at least two males in it. In the novel, each member has to choose the book that matters most to them. Although in my personal experience men didn’t choose “manly” novels, my initial instinct was to have one of my male characters choose Atlas Shrugged, a book I admit having no affinity for but that seemed appropriate for a certain type of guy to select. However, the more I wrote, the less my character became that type of guy. Instead, he emerged as a tender man trying to overcome the loss of his wife. By the time his book was going to be discussed, I jettisoned Atlas Shrugged in favor of Slaughter-House Five, a novel that examines grief in an unusual way.
My other male character? Well, he was the love interest and so I gave him The Great Gatsby as the book that mattered most to him. What woman wouldn’t fall for a guy who liked a novel about a man who did everything for love?
RELATED CONTENT: Read our review of The Book That Matters Most.
Author photo by Christina Sebastian.