From Chick Lit to Victim Books: Problems with the Woman’s Book Club

What came first, the depressing women’s book clubs or the morbid books?

Remember the trances and travels afforded by pleasure reading? You couldn’t wait to lose yourself in the next chapter of that murder mystery, royal court espionage or love tryst – you were a voracious reader who deeply mourned the loss of your new character friends once the final page was devoured and downloaded into your fiber.

But somehow, that pleasure has become elusive to the women’s book group, the reading less an armchair cruise than an academic grind. The inevitable prerequisite is the agreed-upon selections must be meaty enough to spark evocative feedback for eloquent sharing round the coffee table. As a result, our picks are highly wrought works of historic, political or cultural significance perpetually mired in sadness. Or, as a fellow member recently commiserated, “Can’t we move on from the holocaust and women in pain?”

“People going through misery, the good women and bad men dynamic – that was an Oprah thing,” observes Bill Dito, an employee of the popular Books Inc. shop in San Francisco, where staff specialists write their own book reviews for customers. He has a bird’s eye view of the victim trend in fiction the last decade, one that has forced us to endure an excruciating trip through a time machine or suffer female bondage of one brand or another – which only further marginalizes us as women.

Then there is the entire cottage industry one might call “victim books” from rape to exploitation to the toast of the Oprah Book Club, author Wally Lamb with big guns like Couldn’t Keep it to Myself: Wally Lamb and the Women of York Correctional Institution. In the collection described as both utterly depressing and a real page turner, inmates describe in their own words, tales of abuse, rejection, self-destructive impulses long before they entered the criminal justice system. This followed other works like She’s Come Undone and Drowning Ruth – bereft titles that speak for themselves.

When The Color Purple and Joy Luck Club came out, they were rare rather than part of a steady diet of underdog angst and could be easily digested. Now, the question remains: Are there any other stories being told?

“As someone who has written about ‘women in pain,’ women dealing with the death of a child, for example, I think that the premise of your question is problematic,” novelist Ayelet Waldman tells me. “All interesting stories are about someone in crisis – in ‘pain’ if you will. Who wants to read about happy people doing happy things? Story is conflict, conflict is story. The Corrections was about people in crisis. Does that fall into your category of ‘victim-literature?’ If it doesn’t, then I think you should take a good look at the question you’re asking, and consider whether it isn’t inherently sexist.”

When she puts it that way, I do feel I’m turning my back on the movement. Men deal in pain, too, as she aptly points out.  The Kite Runner was all about the pain.

The fact is I cherish my women’s book group and our time reviewing, catching up, sipping wine and grazing on grapes and cheese. But it is time to lighten up, or at least look around. Even read about happy things. So sue me. Can’t drama tinged with humor a la Capote, Sedaris and McInerney be book group material? We have even drifted from titillating historic fiction such as Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl series.

I’d like to shirk my duty to remember and never forget (Sarah’s Key, The Invisible Bridge, The Book Thief, Jacob’s Courage, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society). I’ve hit my saturation point for the empathy we must extend to our unfortunate, ill-fated sisters still under tutelage of warlords, meddling Indian parents or Southern patriarchs (Little Bee Sister of My Heart, Shanghai Girls, Secret Life of Bees, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Eat, Pray Love, Life of Venus, Cutting for Stone). 

How might it be different if men were members? I have no idea, since I have only belonged to all women book groups.

In my group, which focuses on contemporary fiction, it would appear the lists are stocked with Sophie’s choices – just as films have waves like the one witnessed in 2008 with an abundance of Third Reich themes: The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, The Reader, Valkyrie, Adam Resurrected. The onslaught had New York Times contributor A.O. Scott questioning the trend, as I have questioned my book group’s thematic selections:

“The near-simultaneous appearance of all these movies is to some degree a coincidence, but it throws into relief the curious fact that early 21st-century culture, in Europe and America, on screen and in books, is intensely, perhaps morbidly preoccupied with the great political trauma of the mid-20th century,” he wrote. “The number of Holocaust-related memoirs, novels, documentaries and feature films in the past decade or so seems to defy qualification, and their proliferation raises some uncomfortable questions: Why are there so many? Why now?”

I can’t say I don’t glean knowledge, picking up more details than what I acquired or remember as a history major in college or as an impressionable kid at Communist Jewish summer camp exposed to the soul-flogging images in films like, Let My People Go, the 1965 story of Israel containing graphic footage of the remains of my ancestors being scooped up from piles at the camps after liberation. It was important to watch. Nonetheless, I wanted to run back to the arts and crafts table and make another God’s Eye. 

Sarah’s Key informed me of the French betrayal and the Vichy collaboration and the wrenching view from the eyes of a child; The Invisible Bridge eloquently told the Hungarian artisan’s story of survival. And the highly literary, exquisite novel, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, allowed me to visit the British Isles during occupation where defiant members of a book group take great risks to meet and eat and break German curfews.

I benefited from all of these reads, but aren’t we ready for an expanded library, a richer experience?

“My in laws came from Poland and Hungary and they ask me about the books we read, but they can never read them and have no interest in going near them,” says another member of my group. I get it. While I didn’t live it, my grandmother was the only one of seven children in her family to escape and survive the Polish slaughter.

While I identified strongly with Jonathan Saffran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated – which recounted one man’s yearnings for his ancestors’ experience of being hidden from the Nazis in a uniquely entertaining voice – I struggle with each depiction of the hiding like animals in the woods, the mashing like cattle into jam-packed train cars, the starvation, the fear, the digging of their own graves before dropping into them. No wonder we found relief in the uber-violent Inglorious Bastards.

The same frustration is suffered in the downtrodden female tales, which produced two centuries after Jane Austen, rarely offer a happy mid-18th century way out via a beneficial marriage around the maypole or sudden death of a piggish heir. Instead, we find ourselves steeped in the relentless bellicosity of the neanderthals entrapping them, classic male withholders of the basic needs we women require to thrive: love, money, property, liberty, suffrage and great sex after 50.

Why now are we spending our free time moaning vicariously in wartime hellishness or flinching through a deranged arranged marriage when we could cuddle up in bed on a Sunday with a steamy romance epic, bone-chilling murder mystery or a young professional’s playful romp working at a style magazine or publishing house or paying dues in some hick town? Now that is chick-lit I can wrap my overloaded, burned-out brain around – reads that I won’t equate with the daily drudgery of paying bills and managing schedules.

If we must endure yet fresh pain, perhaps it might be framed not in 20th century Europe but, say, 21st century New Orleans, as in Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun. At least, as in The Help and Eat Pray Love, it is fresh stuff chronicling our own times. The Depression-era Water for Elephants, too, provided a historic perspective while still offering something totally new in the journey of a would-be vet who joins the circus. It certainly wasn’t free of struggling female characters, but the suffering didn’t dominate the theme and the redemption was a gift.

The same dearth of freshness clearly exists in in play writing, as well. How else can you explain the barrage of revivals in the last decade? If I see an ad for Annie Get Your Gun one more time, I’ll shoot myself and take Wild Bill with me. It’s the old Disney strategy of when in doubt, produce a remake or sequel. And novelists suffer from the same syndrome by focusing on what sells.

Perhaps one remedy would be to not rely solely on the New York Times lists and peruse book stores for the employee recommendations. Oftentimes, you will find sparkling little stories that didn’t cut the mustard with the corporate giant, but are worthwhile nonetheless.

“We pick and choose ones we want to read and then write it up if we like it and also accept customer reviews,” explains Dito. “You would be amazed how many people come in here to look at our reviews. That’s why there is a need for book stores. You can’t talk to someone from Amazon.”

Among the Books Inc. favorites: Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (author of  The River of Doubt ) which examines the the madness, medicine and murder of James A. Garfield; The Elegance of the Hedgehog a quirky French story by Muriel Barbery; The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell, focusing on a war-ravaged Dutch East Indies company; and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami,  a romantic Japanese woman’s coming of age.

Another staff reviewer, Chris Lutes, adds that there are certainly a plethora of Third Reich era reads such as Laura Hiderbrand’s World War II survivor dramas including the recently acclaimed Unbroken.  But there are plenty of alternatives worth book club consideration.

“It was a pretty trying time in history so it’s easy to revisit because even though we are removed from that drama there is such humanity to those stories and it’s easy for people to get into that mindset. Still it’s staggering how many books are published each month – so there’s a lot of other stuff out there,” he says.

Images: imdb; Skinny Chronicles, shutterhacks; Squidoo

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.