Erotic fiction can spice up a book group
A risqué title gives a literature club an added frisson
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books 2013, and the Fiction Uncovered Prize 2014.
Tuesday 11 December 2012
Every book club has its own rules of engagement. I was briefly in one where everyone was single and never even bothered to buy a copy of the book they were supposed to have read. So I joined a "women only" one, thinking that, rather like single-sex schools, there would be no distraction from the task at hand. Husbands and boyfriends had to leave the premises and male authors got a rough ride, but it worked well otherwise.
That was then, in those pre-lapsarian days before 50 Shades of Grey kick-started our obsession with literary erotica. The E L James ripple effect has seen a flourishing of book clubs that specialise in smut, from the Erotic Book Club set up three years ago in East London's The Bökship bookshop to various other proliferations. Where the sexual tension used to reside below surface, between members of a traditional reading group, this dynamic has shifted so that the sexual frisson comes from within the pages of the book itself. There is also the emergence of hybrid book clubs-cum-cabarets where performance, sexual titillation and literature combine. Most recently, a gay literary salon called Naked Boys Reading saw men doing just that in front of an audience. The Facebook page for the event at the end of November pledged that "our boys will unwrap their packages while you're listening to some bookish treats."
With or without the cabaret act, these clubs are easy to mock. After all, how long can a discussion last on which sex scene was most sublimely crafted? And do the people who attend resemble the kind of women who turned up to E L James's first public reading in London this year, looking like leopard-skin clad escapees from a hen party, or are they more like the jurors of the Literary Review's Bad Sex Awards – sneering public-school types who are impossible to please?
They have a meaningful side to them in so far as they continue a phenomenon that reflects our need for erotica. The (non-erotic) novelist Ali Smith recently made the point that the mainstream popularity of 50 Shades of Grey must reflect a desire or fantasy that we are expressing collectively in the same way as we did in our childlike need for escapism during the Harry Potter phenomenon.
My problem is not so much with "erotic" book clubs as with book clubs in general. In fact, it strikes me that the erotic genre offers a very apt metaphor for the book-group format as a whole, in which women – and it does seem to be mostly women – get together to talk about a book, but end up talking about it rather awkwardly for 15 minutes before hitting the plonk and changing the topic to what they really came to discuss: their work, families, love lives or lack of them. Book groups, in my experience, are thinly disguised cheese-and-wine parties in literary wolves' clothing. It is at least less irritatingly bourgeois to add a bit of Jackie Collins and a smattering of the Chippendales to the whole tradition.
In my years of book-club bondage, I spent years acquainting myself with other people's bad taste and reading the kind of books I wouldn't otherwise have touched with a barge pole. On the odd occasion I discovered an author I absolutely loved, but more often than not it was a waste of my time. I came to the conclusion that there are too many books and not enough time to be reading a novel that someone you barely know has plucked off a bookshelf.
Arranging book clubs by genres is maybe a more effective way of reading books that will make you happy. So if we really have to have book-clubs at all, then long live the genre book club, in all its 50 Shades.
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