Stoner, the eponymous protagonist of a novel by Charles Williams, is a puzzling character. He emerges from an intellectually impoverished rural childhood to become a serviceable American professor of English literature. His death is announced on the first page of the novel and as we circle back through various phases of his life he often seems an unlikely hero. One of his chief characteristics is passivity. This lack of manly self-assertion grated on several members of our all-male book group. Others, though, found themselves identifying with Stoner – with his frequent inability to rise to challenges, and his slow drift towards retirement and old age with apparently little to show for decades of professional dedication. But it was easy to miss a certain strength in Stoner – his principled refusal to cut moral corners – and as we wrestled with ambivalent feelings about him this aspect of his moral being became a prominent focus of discussion.
Not everyone liked or enjoyed Stoner, but that isn’t always the point. There are books we enjoy reading, but there are also books we are pleased to have read later on even if we didn’t greatly enjoy the experience at the time. Stoner triggered certain sharp responses, whether positive or negative, in this all-male group because we are on the verge of old age and we are all trying to make sense of the lives we have led and might yet lead as men: the part our professional lives have played in the formation of our personal identities; the extent to which we have managed to balance the personal and professional; what happens to our identities once we no longer have work to support them. Can we, as Stoner seems to do, settle for not having achieved as much in worldly terms as we would have wished?
Stoner is such a haunting and beautifully written book that it would surely spark rich discussion for a group composed of both men and women, or of women only. And after all, the key determinant of the success of a book group is not gender distribution but the personalities of those involved. Having been in both mixed book reading groups and now this all-male one, I’d much rather be in a mixed group of solicitous contributors and good listeners than an antler-bashing bunch of male bombasts. Nevertheless, given congenial group chemistry, heuristic gendered reading perspectives can be best pursued in single-sex groups. Even Pat Barker’s The Girls, a harrowing novel about the oppression of women, required us to view the book as men and to examine our gender attitudes with an openness that might have been more difficult in a mixed group.
Our group had its first meeting in November 2018. We gather at roughly six-weekly intervals from about 6-8:30 p.m in a quiet room in the Rosebud Country Club with sweeping views of the golf course. We start talking over dinner and a drink. But we don’t drink much. These occasions are firmly focused on the text for the day. The text may trigger discussion of broader issues – immigration, ecology, gender, or whatever – but there’s never a sense that we’re just there for a beer and a chat. All nine of us are serious readers.
The idea was first proposed by two old school friends of mine, one an organizational psychologist, the other an educational psychologist. When they proposed it to me, a retired professor of English, I jumped at the opportunity. It was agreed that each of us would approach friends or acquaintances whom we thought might be interested in joining us. The idea proved popular. The backgrounds of the other members are: a retired schoolteacher; an education academic and consultant; a retired sociologist; a landscape gardener; a former fisherman; and a geologist, now horticulturalist. The fact that some of us were already friends and that we invited others whom we reckoned would fit in well no doubt helped to create good group feeling from the outset. It might also be that just as all-female book groups avail themselves of long-standing and highly positive gendered spaces in the culture – salons, women’s guilds and so on – an all-male group like ours draws on and is enriched by the Aussie ethos of mateship. The mateship feeling in our case is supportive, funny, undemonstratively affectionate and free of big-ego self-assertion. We are all good listeners and arrive at sessions hoping to learn, maybe even to have our minds changed about the book under discussion.
We have no particular reading agenda. Each individual gets to propose a book for discussion on a rotating basis. Generally the next person to propose a text will put two or three possibilities to the group for consideration at the end of the prior meeting. Thus far we have only discussed prose texts, all but one of them works of fiction. Texts discussed to date are (in no particular order): Anna Burns, Milkman; Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending; Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad; John Williams, Stoner; Tony Birch, The White Girl; Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe; Ian McEwan, Machines Like Me; Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls; Charles Massey, The Call of the Reed Warbler; Gerald Murnane, The Plains; and Marilynne Robinson, Lila.
It might be wondered what profit there would be for a professor of English in all of this. The answer is that I find the discussions really rewarding. I thoroughly enjoy the mateship aspect, and often others in the group notice things in a book that I had missed or – importantly – had only seen from a narrowly academic perspective. I enjoy the way each person’s literary responses are filtered through his life experiences. Sometimes I’m asked to provide some academic background – say about the genre of as particular text, or where it sits in various literary traditions, or technical aspects like the use of narrative point of view – and I’m happy to do this. But not much of this is needed. Responses to the books are generally perceptive, fresh and open-minded.
But what happens if someone really dislikes and disapproves of a book and is unmoved by our discussion of it? It can of course happen. Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, an intensely elusive work of magic realism with no secure plot and unnamed, vaguely drawn characters, was a case in point. Some members of the group were prepared to cut the book some slack on account of its exquisite, poetic landscape descriptions. Others warmed to it somewhat when I talked about magic realism, postmodernism and so on. But as the discussion drew to a close one of us said, in effect, that he’d given the book the best reading he could and had listened hard to the conversation, but still couldn’t stand the thing. He asked, looking particularly at the book’s proposer, if we’d mind if he put his case bluntly. Since part of our implicit code of discussion is that people be frank but without being hurtful we said “Of course.” His eschewal of expletives was admirable, but he took no prisoners in denouncing what he saw as the pretentiousness of Murnane’s prose, the inaccessibility of the text for all but a highbrow readership, the book’s unpersuasive pretensions to a critique of mainstream Australian values, and its refusal to commit to any value other than endless open-endedness. He didn’t ‘lay it on’ or milk the moment for comic effect. He simply said what he thought and several others tended to agree. But would they say that they regretted having read the book and having experience non-realist writing of this kind? I suspect not.
Book groups, whatever their makeup, should be about pushing the boundaries.