On Men’s Book Clubs

Many of Bas Bleu’s readers (and editors, too!) can list “avid book-club member” on our reading resumés. But whether your monthly meetings focus on the books themselves or the wine and conversation served alongside them, chances are good your book club is primarily (if not entirely) composed of women. That’s the statistical norm, it seems: According to the Pew Research Center, twice as many women than men are involved in book clubs or other literary groups.

But on May 4, an article in the Men’s Style section of the New York Times proclaimed “Men Have Book Clubs, Too,” and the online reading community promptly exploded. The problem wasn’t with the concept of men enjoying a gathering of friends (and sometimes strangers) to discuss literature. Rather, the problem seemed to be the criteria with which at least one of the groups profiled in the article selects its books:

In addition to going by the name the Man Book Club, for instance, Mr. McCullough’s group expresses its notion of manliness through the works it chooses to read. “We do not read so-called chick lit,” he said. “The main character cannot be a woman.”

This is detailed in the Man Book Club’s criteria, on the group’s website: “No books by women about women.

Within hours of the article’s post, Twitter was, well, a-twitter with the hashtag #ManlyBooksClubNames, as annoyed readers tossed out suggestions such as “Sense and Sensitivity Training,” “Little Men,” and—from novelists Jennifer Weiner and Celeste Ng—“All the Rooms of Our Own” and “Pride and Prejudice (Against Women),” respectively.

But while some of the male book-club members featured went overboard in an attempt to prove their literary masculinity—in an article seemingly designed to provoke controversy—“Men Have Book Clubs, Too” certainly presents food for thought. Are book clubs really “a traditionally female space(as argued by Slate’s L. V. Anderson) that make men feel unwelcome? Do women and men seek different benefits from book clubs? Do they read different books? Is it okay if they do?

Curious, Bas Bleu’s editors reached out to one of the literary guys we know for some insight into his experience in an all-male book club. It turns out his reasons for joining the group aren’t so unusual: “What attracted me was that it was a personal yet somewhat intellectual outlet to life. If I read a book, it’s nice to have someone to talk to about it. Also, it forces me to read and discuss things that may not be on my radar.” He confessed his group does consume its fair share of wine, but while they gravitate towards nonfiction with an emphasis on history and character, they don’t limit their title selections by gender.

If men and women generally join literary groups for the same reasons—to discuss books with other people—why the need for all-male clubs at all? Our (very limited) research suggests that all-male book clubs offer a “safe space” for men to open up about topics that, without the filter of literature, they otherwise feel self-conscious discussing. In the Times piece, members of the International Ultra Manly Book Club argue their meetings “provide a space to explore literary depictions of what it means to be a man” and that “‘fiction is designed to examine empathy…Men aren’t encouraged to talk about their feelings or emotions in public.’” Over at New York Magazine, writer Jesse Singal agrees: “Despite the supposedly enlightened age we live in, it still really is tough for many men to open up and talk freely about traditionally ‘feminine’ subjects, like feelings.” Bas Bleu’s inside man concurs: “Keeping it all male keeps some sense of honesty that might not be expressed otherwise, whether it is being brash or somewhat emotional about a topic.” Honestly, a similar argument can be made in favor of all-female book clubs, which Anderson characterizes as “an opportunity for reflection and bonding over what it means to be a woman.”

So are coed book clubs the answer? “I absolutely love coed groups,” says Bas Bleu reader Melissa, the organizer of a large book club in South Carolina. “Being a man is different from being a woman, the way we each see the world…and the way the world sees [gender]. It absolutely affects our perception of the story. [But] that doesn’t mean we see everything differently.” Then what of the men who agree with the Man Book Club’s title selection criteria: “No books by women about women”? Exploring masculinity through literature is one thing, but exclusively male-centric reading can be dangerous in the long run. Remarks Anderson:

Most of the literature in the Western canon is by, and about, men, which means that girls grow up identifying with male protagonists but boys don’t grow up identifying with female protagonists. Men still write most book reviews, even though most readers are women. Novels by male authors are presumed to be literary fiction until proven otherwise, while books by female authors are presumed to be chick lit.

Young-adult book blogger Alison Doherty echoes that sentiment: “Too often boys don’t read anything relating to female experiences. And there are enormous adult misconceptions and pressures to keep it this way.” Book-club moderator Melissa agrees:

It’s really frustrating that men choose which book club to attend based on their perception of whether it’s a ‘female-driven’ book… We just read [My Brilliant Friend] by Elena Ferrante and not a single man signed up [to attend the meeting], which is unheard of. In reality I know they would have had such a great perspective.

What do we take away from this debate? No easy answers but these: Books and our discussions about them are important, to women as well as men. If your book club is coed, try to ensure that everyone knows their input and perspectives are valuable. If your group is composed only of men or only of women, it’s okay to enjoy that fellowship…but don’t lose sight of what literature can teach you about how the other half lives, feels, and struggles. And whatever you do: Keep reading!

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