Monday, August 27, 2007

Readers Guides

My publisher recently suggested I draw up a Readers Guide for WHY MERMAIDS SING, my next Sebastian St. Cyr mystery. As you know, Readers Guides are those lists of questions intended for book clubs.

I belonged to a book club once—for two and a half months. We read THE INSTANCE OF THE FINGERPOST and THE QUINCUX. I struggled manfully (womanfully?) through both. I forget now what the next month’s selection was, but I decided the book club scene was not for me and withdrew with politely murmured excuses about time. We weren’t a particularly organized book club, so we didn’t use Readers Guides. If we had, I would have left after two and a half minutes.

Nevertheless, having received my assignment (publisher’s suggestions are generally treated like commands), I Googled “Readers Guides” and set about looking at some examples. Yikes. (If you yawned through any college lit class, you can skip these examples and go straight to the next paragraph.) Consider this from THE LIFE OF PI: “Yann Martel sprinkles the novel with italicized memories of the "real" Pi Patel and wonders in his author's note whether fiction is ‘the selective transforming of reality, the twisting of it to bring out its essence.’ If this is so, what is the essence of Pi?” Oh my God! Then there’s this example from THE DUEL: “Like much of Russian literature from the nineteenth century, The Duel deals explicitly with ideas and ideologies and how they function in the ‘real world’ depicted in the novel. Chekhov’s story plots the conflict between two protagonists who espouse antithetical worldviews: Von Koren and his Social Darwinism, in which only the fittest should survive, and Laevsky and his “Hamletism” (“My indecision reminds of Hamlet”), that is, his tendency to blame his own hypocrisy and moral turpitude on the corrupting influences of his time and civilization. Identify and discuss some of the passages in which the two characters discuss their own and, more important, each other’s worldviews. In what ways do these two protagonists embody their self-professed beliefs?” Okay, maybe Chekov was a bad choice. I keep looking, and find this: “I’m Not Scared is preceded by an epigraph by Jack London: ‘That much he knew. He had fallen into darkness. And at the instant he knew, he ceased to know.’ Why has Niccolò Ammaniti chosen to begin his novel with this quote? How does it illuminate what happens in the story? What is the literal and symbolic significance, in terms of the novel, of falling into darkness?”

Are you running screaming for the door yet?

These are the kind of questions that make college kids think they hate fiction. But I tried. I tried to come up with questions that wouldn’t make a reader’s eyes glaze over, that would perhaps stimulate some positive thinking about my book. I sent them to my editor this morning. Her response? “If they remind you of an English class then maybe they’re boring questions. Try to come up with the kinds of questions a group of women sitting around with coffee and cookies would like to discuss, something that relates the story to their own lives.”

Um. Okay. How about… “How would you react if you found a partially butchered body with the severed hoof of a goat in its mouth? Compare and contrast your reaction with Sebastian’s.” Or maybe… “How would you feel if you discovered you were sleeping with your sister?”

Somebody just shoot me now.


Lisa said...

Yikes. Coming from strictly a reader's point of view, I will tell you my personal opinion, for what it's worth. I do like author's notes at the backs of books (not sure if that's a reader or a writer thing), but I just looked through a bunch of books to find the discussion questions, um, they all seem pretty goofy to me. I guess maybe it's because the questions I have in my own mind after finishing a book don't necessarily have answers to them and I don't really even want them to -- if they have to do with some character's behavior or state of mind. I'm sure if there's a way to come up with a list of discussion questions that are somewhere between pretentious (I just looked at my copy of Life of Pi and apparently never noticed those questions before -- I'm glad I read the book first or they might have turned me off completely) and silly (the questions in the back of Kite Runner look like they were written for a junior high school english class), you will be able to do it :)

Emily said...

Argh. I'm just preparing my first class of the academic year, and you're so right about the boring stupidity of the questions you quote.

I do like the last two, though, the ones you created, and they would generate more interest.

The boring cited questions are too tied to minutiae in the texts, things no one cares about. My students twitch and moan with those kinds of questions, and I can't imagine going through them voluntarily.

What's much more interesting to them is to chart their own reactions or make comparisons with stories they already know, including current celebrity news.

The cited questions are too limited and don't allow for imagination. Most readers like to expand their horizons, to connect what they read with what they already know. When I've visited book clubs, they use the reading (which not everyone does, anyway) as a springboard for discussion about ideas or themes in the reading--such as how to behave towards one's sister, or how to handle crisis situations.

What grabs readers is the feeling that the reading is useful--as advice, as cautionary tale, as springboard for discussion. Minutiae are not useful.

One kind of question that sometimes gets good responses is to ask readers to consider alternatives. What if a character didn't run away, or sleep with a sibling, or . . .? Readers do like speculating about alternatives, just as they would in real life.

Sorry for this overlong post, but it's exactly what I'm thinking about now, so I spewed it here. And now back to my regularly-scheduled syllabus--

Emily Toth

Steve Malley said...

If I can think of anything helpful, I'll chip in.

Of course, I'll have to stop laughing first. Something about 'severed hoof of a goat' just set me off!

Kate S said...

LOL, poor Candice. That does sound like torture.

You know, I never liked those questions at the back of the books. Feels too much like a test and I suffer test anxiety. I can't imagine having to come up with the questions.

Good luck. :)

Shauna Roberts said...

I too have found the discussion questions at the backs of books worthless.

I do like your two suggested questions at the end of your post—they'd be certain to generate discussion in book groups.

Here are some ideas I had for questions (based on the previous books since I obviously haven't read this one yet):

•In what ways does Sebastian thumb his nose at conventional society and in what ways does he go along with the crowd? What repercussions do his choices have on him and on his family? How do these repercussions compare with those for nonconformity in modern society?

•Do you think Sebastian would fill the role his father and society expect of him if Kat were not in his life?

•Hero also thwarts convention. How do her reasons and the consequences differ from Sebastian's?

•Does it harm a country to have a lame-brained head of state and corrupt officials running it? [note: I'm referring to Rregency England here.]

•Sebastian is Tom's savior, but he also frequently puts the child in harm's way. Are his actions justified?

Hope some of these are useful.

Sphinx Ink said...

Aargh! The questions you quoted illustrate why, after four years as an English major, I knew that grad school in English was not for me. I found that kind of literary analysis excruciatingly boring.

Your suggested questions for your book are more interesting and appealing because they encourage the reader to become a character in the book, by imagining herself/himself in the situations. Shauna's sample questions in her comment also are excellent.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't think I ever even noticed these things at the end of books, although I remember something like them from English class. I would certainly not read such stuff by choice.

Emily said...

Shauna's questions are great. I suggest you quietly purloin them, with revisions as needed.

Her questions lead to discussion, thought, and humor. What could be better?

Emily Toth

liz fenwick said...

In my experience of book clubs you particiapte to be forced to read books you normally wouldn't choice or to dicuss the big issues raised in them. We rarely stay with the book itself long and digress to topics around or touched upon in the book. Interestingly it doesn't matter if the book was literary or the lighter summer read - we never stick to the book for very long and never ever refer to the question in the back.

Good luck :-)

cs harris said...

Shauna, I intend to steal you ideas shamelessly. Thank you. Thank you Emily, for your insight gained from many years of standing in front of English classes. And thanks to Lisa, Kate, Sphinx Ink, Charles, and Liz for your input. It all helps to give me a better idea of what not to do. And I'm glad to hear I made you laugh, Steve!

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