Heather Campbell

Winter 2003

Join the Club: Women's Reading Trends in the 20th Century

     When I worked in a large bookstore, I knew Oprah's latest pick long before the management determined the special layout of the display table, before the new editions with the Oprah-crest embossed upon them came out, flooding the storage space of the store. I knew from the women who came in with a particular gleam in their eye and a scrap of paper with title and author on it. Swarms of them. The Oprah announcement sent them in shockwaves through the doors, straight to the Oprah table and then to me, if the latest pick was not out on display yet.

     And yes, they were mostly women. This is not even because Oprah is a woman or her show appeals more to women. It's a style of reading. Long before Oprah took it to the level of having a table for her picks in every major bookstore, book clubs still raged on in their little weekly, monthly, semi-annual enclaves. Oprah has recently announced the end of her club, but this does still leave the trend alive and well. So why are women, and yes, they are mostly women, thrilled by reading-in-common? What makes the book club something of an aerobics-class-with-a-friend-for-motivation activity?

     The Women's National Book Association, founded in 1917, "promotes reading and supports the role of women in the community of the book." This "community of the book" is a major theme in women's reading trends. At the turn of the century, as women were just starting to be included in structured intellectual university communities, they took steps to build up learning on their own ground. Communities through fiction were not placard waving stances on the women's movement, but they could be seen as a subterfuge of the intellectual gates that were closed to many women.

     A book club as a protest movement? Possibly. In the '20s and onwards, experimental writing by women came to the attention of reading women. Writers like Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and others experimented with fiction that was not seen as particularly "female". This writing was art, rather than an amusing form of craft. Women like Stein were seen as writers who did not court a large audience, as readers had to work for their understanding of these novels. Yet Stein proclaimed, "I am writing for myself and strangers. This is the only way that I can do it." In other words, she was not writing for a small group that surrounded her, as the common view of her salons are. These "strangers" made up their own club, a potentially far flung group that were nonetheless addressed directly by the author. This experimental writing built up its own community.

     Djuna Barnes also was part of the "Academy of Women" or "Literary Women of the Left Bank", as they were then known. Like many female writers, she worked for women's magazines such as McCalls, then moved onto The New Yorker and others, as well as into novels and poetry. Magazines were another avenue for a women's reading community, and many followed these writers into their fiction as well. Women's magazines still boast large crowds of faithful readers, with communities that range from sex advice columns to serialized fiction.

     A community of writing women such as this "Academy" does not necessarily translate into a community of reading women. Unless, of course, market focused publishers specifically set out to make this community. In 1949, Richard Bonnycastle founded Harlequin Books and changed the way paperbacks were marketed. The company quickly focused almost solely on what Mrs. Bonnycastle termed those "nice little books with happy endings." Romance novels were placed in supermarket checkouts and available for mail order. Harlequin targeted the growing group of housewives that became addicted to these books throughout the '50s until the present. eHarlequin.com announces that "the growing popularity of the romance genre, along with Harlequin's effective marketing and promotion techniques has enabled sales of romance novels to soar from 3 million in 1970 to the current annual total of more than 160 million worldwide.

     The "marketing and promotion" impact goes beyond the grocer's checkout line. One could argue that it is the clubby aspect of these books that keeps them selling. Once you get going, you keep going, in effect. And if your neighbour is reading too, why not keep up? The isolation felt by '50s and '60s housewives in the new suburban areas, where neighbours did not interact as much as in the cities, could be conquered by this community. Suburban housewives could reach out to a nationwide migration of other women to the supermarkets waiting for the next romance to come out. Even before the chat rooms, there was definitely a sense of community when reading a book that is being read in living rooms across the country.

     What is it that draws women into this clubbyness in their reading? More than marketing, although from before Harlequin and up to Oprah, marketing is definitely there. As we can see by the women writing and reading in the early 1900s, it was more of an intellectual bonding together to face off against the limited resources that were available to women in university and other traditional intellectual communities.

     This carried on into the '60s and '70s, when feminism created a new sense of community among women. Anais Nin sparked a mass call for sexual experimentation with her dairies, at least until they were shown to be fictional. The diaries offered a public exploration of private lives, perfect fodder for a club-like reading experience. Thousands of women joined the author in her adventures, as though she were the organizing force behind a rather daring club. She was the narrator for the work that brought this club together.

     Maybe people felt betrayed by the fiction in the diaries because of this sense of club leader, someone walking us through a book, and a life, that she understood. This betrayal did not stop women from looking for other leaders, though, and the clubs went on.

     Reading Women brings reviews "from the Book Club that started when Oprah was only 16". While not in Oprah's wake, the group is definitely aware of the waves she creates. Reading Women put out a review publication that was "great for busy people who don't want to spend their precious time reading lengthy reviews." The publication went out of print in 1999, but still highlights a major theme in bookclub reading trends: clubs offer a prescreened and accessible book that will not send the reader out on a limb after three hours pacing a chain bookseller. They offer convenience, summarized plot lines, and fellow readers who are in the same boat for discussions both to praise and criticize.

     Oprah has of course taken the community of praise (mostly) and criticism nation-wide. She offers an online community with organized discussions, and a regular choice of fiction which was discussed on her show. The club has recently ended its six-year run as a boom for publishers and authors, depending on what one thinks of the status of her endorsement. But the attraction of the book club, formal or informal, will probably last beyond her influence.

     Does it demean women readers to say that we like company? Probably not. It is a style of consumption that has been found throughout the century, if not longer, and does not lower the bar on what it is that women like to read. No Harlequin writer has been up for a Nobel, but Oprah has chosen a few, and her readers have not flinched. So the book club is not a nice n' light version of reading, as it is often perceived. It is a community-building tactic that chooses books as its vehicle. Which, in my opinion, is a fine vehicle to choose.

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