The Creation of the Online Book Club
The New York Times’s recent debut of an online book club instilled in me a great sense of relief: human beings—writers, editors, and people in charge of the Internet—could be trusted to make decisions based on common sense.
Today’s consumer of entertainment is energized not just by a creative work but by the hope that basic online research will reveal the “real self” of the creator via an exclusive interview, a blogger’s account of a random public encounter, or a news ticker about a divorce. Because we have this terrific compulsion to accumulate every bit of information about our artistic creators, in extreme cases we convince ourselves that (a peek into) the creator’s real self supersedes his/her creative product. An obvious example is how the fake person named Brangelina has become known more for its Us Weekly cover count than its occasional flash of artistry. Creativity, we say, cannot compete with all those adopted babies.
This notion is, of course, an illusion. It’s an illusion that seems to be refuted by the popularity of reality television shows and niche web features like lifecasting. Those are the vessels of entertainment that have tried to persuade us that there are people in this world for whom exposure of their personal lives is in demand solely because it is in demand. No other reason exists! It’s just true! But this idea is a construction as well; it fails to account for the fact that being famous for being famous is itself the direct result of a massive exercise in creativity. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing is immaterial. What’s important is that “famous for being famous” represents the only true idea of contemporary creations: we will keep creating not only art but also gossip and profiles and exposés about our artists until we are satisfied that what we’ve created matches our expectation of what is real.
We’ve done this to actors; will we do this to writers? Will the most satisfying experience be A) reading the much-hyped novel The Art of Fielding, B) reading Keith Gessen’s in-depth profile hyping the author Chad Harbach (appropriately titled “How to Create a Literary Star”), or C) reading the inevitable online book club about whether or not the novel lived up to the hype?
My purpose in writing today’s post, which happens to be this blog’s first, is not to pontificate but to pimp the formal online book club (as opposed to Amazon forums, though they do have their own charm). I love the online book club partly because as a reader I crave people talking about books that matter, and partly because it is one of those modes of pleasure whose enjoyment doesn’t require immediate consumption. Unlike your mother’s bimonthly Tuesday-night neighborhood book club meetings, the online book club is available at the book reader’s discretion. I am still not sure why it took the Times, which had the smarts to partner with Bloggingheads in the technologically naïve year of 2007, until now to realize that offering such a feature is a no-brainer.
The first book the Times discussed was Colum McCann’s Let The Great World Spin. I read this novel last summer and was thrilled by its vision and execution. McCann made me feel the gravity of the New York he created, and he also made an extremely difficult task—weaving multiple storylines over many decades and through many different perspectives—appear easy, like when a wide receiver makes an over-the-shoulder catch while running downfield at full speed. At the same time, though, the novel’s minor but noticeable content flaws, as well as its idiomatic style, left me questioning the National Book Award committee. Did the novel deserve its prize?
I had my thoughts, but somehow none of my argumentative literary friends had read the book. What I wanted, I thought, was for people—intelligent writers and critics—they would have to be serious thinkers—to discuss, very plainly, whether or not this was actually a great American novel, so that I could eavesdrop and act voyeuristically.
Interestingly, when this opportunity finally presented itself, I did not take advantage. I still haven’t indulged in the Times discussion. I think the reason for this is that although I had plowed through the novel in one sitting on the beach, once the shock of its unputdownability wore off, I considered it to be a great read but nothing special. Maybe what I’m afraid of is the prospect of people telling me I’m wrong.
One book I did love enough to online stalk its author happens to be the one that stole the novelistic American cultural referendum torch from McCann: the much bigger and badder Freedom. Coincidentally, I was on vacation when I read it too, and so after exhausting every Jonathan Franzen interview, as well as all the serious reviews and any bit of info anyone had ever compiled about him, which included an essay by his ex-girlfriend entitled “Envy,” I downloaded the Slate book club podcast of his novel.
On the plane ride home I pressed the headphones to my ears, eagerly awaiting some hidden, juicy, overlooked nugget about the story or, preferably, about Franzen. This never happened. The three women agreed that the book was quite good but not perfect (which is an accurate but annoying assessment), and then they explored the requisite (but boring) Franzen pseudo-controversies. I was disappointed until I considered the possibility that my interpretation of the novel could stand alone as the novel’s reality. Why couldn’t what I thought just be what I thought?
I don’t particularly like when book clubs analyze with sophistication; I like when they argue with nuance and vitriol, and I got argumentation from Slate book club podcasts of Anna Karenina and Infinite Jest, two of my favorite books from two of my favorite authors. Even though the commentators didn’t unanimously agree that these were beautiful and brilliant novels, they seemed to be in agreement that it took a special kind of beauty and brilliance to create them.
And then there was Stephen Metcalf’s takedown of Eat, Pray, Love. During this riveting, tension-filled podcast, I repeatedly thought, He is so right, everything he’s saying is true. I thought this despite the fact that I had never read the book. But no matter. The podcast was, by far, my favorite because of Metcalf’s brutal insistence on his correctness. He essentially said, to the millions of people who found some sort of personal or shared redemption in Elizabeth Gilbert’s pages and would not be able to be convinced otherwise: You are wrong.
My favorite online book club is a tie between New York magazine’s discussion of The Book of Basketball, Bill Simmons’s encyclopedic ode to the sport, and Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, David Lipsky’s account of five days in 1996 with David Foster Wallace. Simmons and Foster Wallace operate in totally different realms, but interest in their work has never been higher than in the past three years (and yes, I know that Foster Wallace is not alive). The most interesting thing about their work, though, is that it is created by them. Simmons is the sports writer who built an empire out of an Internet column, and Foster Wallace is the fiction writer who entertained his fans by showing them how entertainment was contaminating their realities. One of the most common reactions from first-time readers of their work is, What kind of person created this?
My mother actually does belong to a bimonthly Tuesday-night neighborhood book club. To belong, she has to read a novel she might not want to read, bake a liberal household-appropriate dish, and listen to a dozen Jewish women yell at each other. For me to join a book club, I have to stare at a computer screen and ignore the world around me. I do not consider this problematic.