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Thursday, October 28, 2021

How cancel culture invaded the book club

‘We think you should find a more intelligent book club,’ said the awkward voice on the other end of the phone. I was hardly surprised. When you’re Fauda and the rest of the group is The Marvelous Mrs Maisel, things are bound to go wrong. I had often complained to my husband about the (light) reading choices and enforced upbeat tone of my book group’s discussions. He kept saying, ‘Why don’t you quit?’ Instead, I did what many women have done before, and let them break up with me.

Another member resigned in support and together we started what I call my ‘smart’ book club (I’m now in three). Having been frustrated by the choice of reading matter before, I went 180 degrees in the opposite direction and recruited Oxford grads, thereby jumping from the equivalent of breakfast television straight into Newsnight. One of our members (a solicitor) prepares her comments on packs of Post-it notes – leaving the rest of us generally speechless. When members of this group apologise for not having read the latest book, it’s because they’re in negotiations with Netflix for a new series or needed at the Treasury.

The cosy (or dreary, depending on your point of view) days of group Zooms are officially over. You may well find – when your own book club reconvenes in person – that you have been disinvited. Covid, it seems, has prompted a lot of social housekeeping.

I almost pride myself on being an early victim of book-club cancel culture. At least they had the courage to sack me properly. Today, they would simply start a new book club without me on an accompanying WhatsApp group and I wouldn’t know any better. ‘The pandemic was a great excuse to get rid of an annoying, bossy member who had insisted on joining,’ says a fashion PR friend who quietly ghosted the bossyboots by starting a new group chat with everyone but the woman in question. ‘Whenever she asks on the old chat when the club is meeting, we unanimously answer, “Sorry, too busy.” I live in fear that I will post the date of the next meeting by accident on the wrong chat and she’ll show up,’ she says.

It’s not always clear where book clubs end and school playgrounds begin. I spoke to the legendary counsellor Zelda West-Meads about my own eviction. I had been upset initially but then used the experience as a valuable insight into my own self-destructive behaviour: I had purposely wound up my fellow members, because they annoyed me. West-Meads comforted me with the observation that very few groups can remain intact without splintering or infighting. ‘All clubs are by definition cliquey,’ she said. ‘There’s always a ringleader and members who don’t conform get eased out. You have groups of two and three breaking out of the pack.’

One all-female book group I know of got into trouble chatting over email. Several members were actively discussing another participant’s botched Botox injections when the conversation ‘accidentally’ was forwarded to her. Then the husbands waded in and there was an acrimonious falling out.

There are as many varieties of book clubs as there are members. Some groups invite the actual writer (if he or she isn’t already a member). Some are even more ambitious, like the one artist Emma Cooper-Key belongs to, which goes on themed field trips. ‘We read Along the Enchanted Way by William Blacker, then went to Transylvania to follow the route,’ she says.

At best, book clubs are safe spaces that foster friendship and flex intellectual muscle. Over lockdown, many of us (me included) were hugely grateful for the regular Zoom discussions and for the emotional support they offered. When I was ill with long Covid on my birthday, my country book club (as opposed to my city one) surprised me with an elaborate picnic lunch. ‘When my house flooded, it was my book club that stepped up. They sent flowers and chocolates,’ says artist and editor Jane Procter.

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