Adventures in the comfort zone: how to read the gateau factor

More than 100 reading groups reported to Jenny Hartley about the stars and the duds of 2001. She finds they love to disagree with the critics
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The Independent Culture

Reading groups are not a new phenomenon, but over the past few years they have mushroomed. Libraries and bookshops host them; publishers woo them; readers seek them out. As an academic I first became fascinated by reading groups about three years ago: I wanted to find out what they read and how they do it. I put my findings into a book (Reading Groups, published by Oxford), and I've been keeping tabs on many of the groups since then. So what have they been mulling over in the past year? A panel of more than 100 groups have just given their verdicts for 2001, "a fantastic year's reading", according to one group.

Reading groups are not a new phenomenon, but over the past few years they have mushroomed. Libraries and bookshops host them; publishers woo them; readers seek them out. As an academic I first became fascinated by reading groups about three years ago: I wanted to find out what they read and how they do it. I put my findings into a book (Reading Groups, published by Oxford), and I've been keeping tabs on many of the groups since then. So what have they been mulling over in the past year? A panel of more than 100 groups have just given their verdicts for 2001, "a fantastic year's reading", according to one group.

The stereotype is of a group of friends meeting at each others' houses to assess the latest offerings over several bottles of wine. But some groups are far more active: "Ross King's Brunelleschi's Dome sparked a book group adventure to Florence in early October; climbing the dome was inspirational." Rural groups have disinfected each other's tyres to get to meetings ("a consolation for no hunting"); others have inaugurated groups in residential homes, and set each other short-story competitions. One group, tackling a book of Napoleon's travels through France, drank wines from the appropriate region when they met – a fairly leisurely campaign.

The range of titles chosen is stunning. Between them, just over 100 groups clocked up 660 titles, three quarters of them mentioned only once – and only one mandolin in sight. This is a vast literary landscape, with room for Matt Beaumont (E) and Dr Johnson (A Journey to the Western Islands), as well as Plato (The Last Days of Socrates) and Dinah Craik (John Halifax, Gentleman). Mainly fiction, but there's been a good showing for Chaucer and Blake (anniversaries and exhibitions were a spur). The occasional play-reading worked well, so did the evening of Victorian letters: selections were brought in and read as part of a strand on Victorian lives.

Looking at the top 10 books, you could say it's been a year for soft centres – what one group enjoying Chocolat identified as "the gateau factor" (they also ate cake when discussing Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette). But bookclub members weren't the only ones to have felt drawn to the comfort zone this autumn, and the list also has some challenging and excellent books (Bad Blood, Disgrace, When We Were Orphans), which should dispel the myth of the "reading group book".

We're still a long way from the sway of the "book club reads" stacked high on the tables at the front of US bookstores. Over here these books can be a liability: "We lost one member over The Divine Secrets of the Ya Ya Sisterhood; she felt she had other things to do with her time than read rubbish," one member confessed.

Prize-winners have done well (Matthew Kneale, Kate Grenville, JM Coetzee, Lorna Sage, Linda Grant, Philip Pullman); so have film and exhibition tie-ins. "We are guided quite a lot by what books are in the news but this is not necessarily an indication that we agree with judges," is a common response. Reading groups are a sort of self-appointed fifth estate, and like to take on the fourth estate of the media. A classic case was Zadie Smith, who topped the poll as the author most chosen by clubs this year. Groups didn't want to ignore the miles of coverage, but were on their guard: "Over-hyped, and we all felt conned into reading this uninteresting, mediocre book." Hype is, in fact, often the issue: "The best discussions occur when the book's popularity is questioned." "Disappointing" was the word many groups used to register their resistance to the prominent White Teeth. Read by a third of the groups on the panel, it was also unfinished book of the year. For enthusiasts, it was "a hilarious, off-the-wall account of race in Britain", "a very accomplished first novel" with "an amazing grasp of voices"; for others it was "difficult going", "universally hated". It's a typical range of reading group responses; they're a contrary lot and can never agree on anything.

Groups were also suspicious of "novels wrapped up in historical clothes, the quasi-historic theme little more than backdrop and marketing gimmick" (for example, Tracy Chevalier's Girl with a Pearl Earring), and of novels by journalists (eg Linda Grant's When I Lived in Modern Times) with a typical comment being "lots of research, works quite well as a source of information, less well as fiction". There's also a widespread dislike of "products of UEA style of creative writing which can be all too recognisable" (Girl with a Pearl Earring again). There have been some rows, mainly about sex and violence: "too much, too explicit".

Though the top 10 has few surprises, it bears no relation to UK bestseller lists currently dominated by Harry Potter. JK Rowling has a low profile in reading groups, but they are choosing more children's fiction than before. Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy (Scholastic), Ted Hughes's The Iron Man (Faber), David Almond's Heaven Eyes (Hodder) and older classics such as Alice and The Wind in the Willows are all finding favour: a retreat to the nursery, or a Potter-led renaissance?

Groups in their fourth or fifth year "would love to know what other groups are reading", or feel they need a shot in the arm: "Some men perhaps?" "After 11 years we have welcomed our first man." But beware. Some men need to learn group etiquette. "A few new members have joined this year – males, sometimes they dominate a discussion." "The new man is dreadful. He thinks we're frivolous, so when we start to talk, he ostentatiously leaves the room, starts writing in a notebook, or begins to open his post." But for the most part "we chunter along happily". "Any changes? – after 27 years we wouldn't dare."

Jenny Hartley runs the MA in Women, Gender and Writing at Roehampton University

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