May 8, 2016

An Apologia


[Reader's Note:  The NYT gave you a small glimpse of the Man Book Club.  Please read below for the rest.  Spoiler Alert:  We do read books by women.]

Man Book Club article New York Times
The New York Times Interviews
 Man Book Club
Our Interview with The New York Times

When we were approached by The New York Times, we were flattered but never expected to end up in print.  Nevertheless, we gave a phone interview and provided additional information by email.  When the article came out on May 4, we were dismayed that so little of what we prize about our close-knit group was mentioned or explained. 

The Article's Angle
The Times article opened with our name (manifestly masculine), our location (an affluent county), and our experience eating Rocky Mountain Oysters (aka, calves’ testicles).  These details provided the hook for anyone mildly curious about all-male book clubs.

After such a lead-in, most feature articles would step back and provide context, the very context we’d provided during our interview.  But this wasn’t a feature article; it was a “trend piece.”  And, as in all trend pieces, provocation is better than explanation.
I don’t blame the writer.  This was her assignment and nothing she wrote was incorrect.  But, by omission, the details and quotes in her piece implied that our book club has zero regard for women's contributions to literature.   Nothing could be further from the truth.

A Critical Reaction

While most pundits had fun with the machismo story line, and understood that we and the other book clubs in the article weren't seeking to be taken seriously, there were some who averred that we were shockingly narrow-minded in our book selection criteria and that as rich white men we were modeling abhorrent behavior. One writer even said book clubs like ours perpetuate “the patriarchy’s continued dominance.” 

To address these concerns, a little explanation is in order. 

Why “Man Book Club”

“Man Book Club” was intended as a riff on the "Man Booker Prize." It referred to our original selection criterion, which mandated shortlisted or award-winning authors only.  Like Booker Prize winners, for example.  Except the Booker Prize became the Man Booker Prize when it was "bought" by the Man Financial Group (a UK hedge fund).  So our name was a jab at Man’s cynical entry into the rarefied world of literary awards.

Who We Really Are
Residents of Marin County?  Yes.  Rich?  No.  We all have to work, unfortunately.  All white?  Another no. Anyone who reads our website can see that our so-called "patriarchy" includes men of Mexican, Japanese, and Filipino descent. 

Why We Came Together
We came together for two reasons:  a desire to form a men’s group and a concomitant desire to read.  In 2007, all of us had young kids and our lives were going nonstop. We were busy doing lots of things.  But we weren’t reading.  Half of us had stopped after college; the other half only read intermittently.  Amid all this action (and inaction), we were also seeking more contemplative fellowship with other men.
Learning from Women’s Book Clubs
When we formed our book club, an online search indicated that the vast majority of book clubs were women-only.  Many of these clubs read widely, but others were quite specific:  there were book clubs that read only gothic romance, fantasy, young adult, Jane Austen (yes, only Jane Austen) or other subgenres.  This gave us an idea for our book club:  we would focus on male-themed literature.  Call it our Jane Austen approach to reading.

Our Book Selection Criteria
Our longstanding rule—“No books by women about women”—has apparently caused the most consternation among our critics.  And confusion.  Virtually every critic read our rule as forbidding any books by women. Or any books about women.  Neither is true.  We read books by women and we read books about women.  Confusion over our rule led one critic to claim--incorrectly--that our criteria would exclude Anna Karenina.

Our rule helps us avoid overtly feminine titles that may not appeal to the entire group of us.  It’s a way to rule out Eat, Pray, Love, but rule in Unbroken.  And Anna Karenina.  It’s not perfect and in fact we’ve strayed from it, like when we read Patti Smith's memoir, Just Kids. 
 
A final and obvious note about our reading.  Once a month we gather to eat and discuss a book that usually emphasizes male themes.  The rest of the month we can and do read anything.  And that includes women's fiction.  
In Conclusion…

We are a group of middle-aged men who have re-discovered the joy of reading after a long hiatus.  Our efforts to read should be encouraged, even if our material isn't as eclectic as some would like.
Slate got it right when it called out the Times and others for grossly distorting the import of our book club.  Its headline read:  Feminists Shouldn’t Roll Our Eyes at Men-Only Book Clubs. We Should Applaud Them.

Thank you, Slate.  We couldn’t have said it better.

6 comments:

The Terminator said...

Andrew -- thank you for that articulate and thoughtful response. While I'm not surprised that the blogosphere went ballistic over their grossly simplistic views of our club, and what and why we read, it is a reminder that anyone with a preconceived opinion and a sense of anger can raise a ruckus instantly in this high tech age of free publishing. Note to the bloggers: An apologia (see the title of this post) is not an apology, it is a defense or explanation of one's opinions or actions. In this case, a well reasoned opinion.

In hindsight, I'm happy about this publicity. It raises awareness of book clubs and reading. It encourages discussion. It also has led to some humorous suggestions of names for men's book clubs. I'm having fun watchingthe swirl.

Thank you, Andrew, for your apologia. Thank you fellow members for making our club experience interesting, supportive, and thought-provoking.

andrew said...

Very scholarly of you to pick up on the meaning of "apologia." And thanks for the kind words. Actually, we've heard from many men (and a few women) who have lauded us for reading literature instead of the sports pages, professional journals, and the like. It's the few outspoken critics--writing from media platforms that need constant clickbait--who've chided us for neglecting women's literature. Clearly what galls them is not our choice of reading; it's that we're explicit in how we express it. Had we simply said we prefer guys' books, there would have been no reaction. But for us to openly exclude a narrow sliver of the book world--women writing about women--really struck a vein with some who feel it further disenfranchises women writers already struggling to be heard. We're sympathetic to those writers, but it doesn't alter the fact that getting 16 guys to agree to read Eat, Pray, Love is simply not going to happen.

Stardrifter said...

As a woman who is an avid reader, I don't believe anything is wrong with the concept of a book club which may be all men, if so, all the best reading. Men as well as women need to find a place they can connect with their friends, some have their sports, some go the their local club or bar, others meet up for barbecues or golf, so why not a round table with you and your friend talking books and drinking tea/coffee/wine.
If you read books written by men on male issues that is a really good topic, we females have our 'chick lit' etc... and I admit that I prefer women writers to male writers and am not ashamed to say so. For me a lot of male writers are more into the action, adventure, defense-army/navy, shoot-em-up sort of writing, and I think they are more for the boys. At least I find I can't really get into a lot of them, I have tried, though. So, I say read, read, read, and read whom you will. I have 3 brothers and I would love them to read more than they do, so anything to encourage men to read is brilliant. Best of luck on your literary journey.

Kathy-Australia

ckubala said...

Your apologia confirmed what I suspected in regards to what your group reads. All the publicity certainly made me think. Thank you for this thorough explanation.

I'll be following your group as I'm interested in what men read.

Anonymous said...

Dear Stardrifter,
While in the club environment we read few books by women, or about women, as avid readers, many of us read both. We recently read "Being Mortal" as a parent of one member was dealing with issues regarding aging and cancer. At the same time I read Terry Temple Williams "Refuge", written by a woman and about women. It was a marvelous read dealing with the interpersonal side of cancer where "Being Mortal" was more clinical. When I mentioned the title at our dinner it turned out many of the members had already read the same book. Fortunately, or unfortunately, both turned out to be timely reading for me as my father recently passed after a very short battle with cancer.
The articles about us did not capture the more meaningful part of our book club. We do share our thoughts and feelings, and the support of my friends during this difficult time helps me move forward.
Regards,
George

Jared said...

Hi Andrew!

Thanks for this piece. I enjoyed learning more about your perspective.

I'm with an organization called Men Advocating Real Change (MARC), a community of men dedicated to workplace equality.

We've currently got a discussion going about your book club (and the NYT piece, in general) in our forums. We'd really love for you (and others members of Man Book Club) to join the conversation: http://onthemarc.org/marchat/viewtopic/39/190. Registration is quick, I promise!

Thanks again!