Book clubs, like romantic comedies, knitting groups, or any pop culture thing involving Sarah Jessica Parker, are generally considered a woman’s domain. And there’s some truth to that. They weren’t necessarily invented by Oprah, but they definitely became a more mainstream phenomenon once the famed talk-show guru launched her own literary segment, in 1996. And, if you do a rough, glancing survey of literary meet-ups in the Bay Area, you’ll find that they often hew to the conventional wisdom: Most, if not all, members are women. The reading lists consist mostly of contemporary fiction authors. The discussions are intelligent, but polite — everyone who wants to criticize the author tries to qualify it in some way — and the rules are lax.
But that template changes when men enter the picture. Even sensitive men. Even the type of men who are looked down upon by other men, because they’ve chosen to join a book club.
Take Andy Proehl, who actually represents a unique case, since his book club consists of all men. That wasn’t necessarily the intent when it started five years ago. Proehl described the goup’s genesis as three guys getting together and bemoaning the fact that they’d never been in a book club. “They’re not always taking applications,” Proehl explained. So the three of them took matters into their own hands and extended invitations to their immediate group of friends. Et voila! The all-boys book club was born. Ironically, “all boys” wasn’t a rule; it just worked out that way. “No one has ever proposed bringing a woman,” Proehl said. “So no one has had to reject a woman.”
As you can imagine, the reading list at Proehl’s book club reflects its demographic. At first, participants made an effort to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. But then they loosened that standard, opting instead for a democratic system in which people made proposals to the group, and everyone voted on what to read next. Left to their own devices, they veered mostly toward nonfiction: Jared M. Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies; Michael Lewis’ The Big Short; Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma; Daniel Yergin’s The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money & Power; anything by Malcolm Gladwell. Occasionally, someone in the group would suggest “general interest” literature that, in Proehl’s mind, fell more in the “self-help” realm — say, a book about investment strategy. Those ideas generally got shot down, as did a proposal for The Game, which is a how-to book on picking up chicks. “The single guys definitely wanted to read that book,” Proehl said, “but all the married guys said no.”
Compare that reading list to the one in my all-female book club, which is largely fiction-oriented: Our last two selections were Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story and David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. Or compare it to the literature that Proehl’s wife Anne Muldoon consumes in her two book clubs, wherein about 80 percent of the content is fiction, and members feel no qualms about picking up the latest Chelsea Handler confessional if they’re hankering for something light. It’s almost the reverse at Proehl’s all-guy group, where the nonfiction-to-fiction ratio is about 70:30.
What’s more interesting, though, is how the approach to book-discussion changes in a room full of men. According to Proehl, members of his book club come in with the same kind of ruthless, competitive attitude that you’d expect to see among contestants on a reality show: “I’m not here to make friends.”
And even though most of them are indeed friends in real life, they won’t hesitate to scold, razz, or one-up each other in the context of a book club. “Our rules are unwritten,” Proehl explained, “but you definitely get heat if you don’t finish the book. And we try to make a concerted effort to spend a significant part of the evening, when we meet, talking about the book. If we get off topic, someone will bring us back around.” Also, personal attacks are permissible in the all-guy book club. Proehl pointed out that one participant, who has been in a relationship for a long time but refuses to get married, often has the misfortune of being compared to characters.
That type of badgering would never fly at Anne Muldoon’s two book clubs, where the discussion is more pointedly civil, the meetings often feature themed food (e.g., a French banquet for a novel about Marie Antoinette), and no one gets reprimanded for not finishing. She thinks her husband and his ilk are a little, well, over the top. “I don’t know if Andy told you this,” Muldoon said in phone interview, “but when they first started the boys book club, everything they picked was like, five hundred pages.”
But perhaps it’s possible to find a happy middle ground between the guys who treat reading as an extreme sport and the women who approach it the same way they would a knitting group. Co-ed book clubs are surprisingly scarce, and even in those, gender parity is pretty hard to attain. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible. SF Weekly music editor Ian Port has a book club with his wife and several friends from college, and he says the male-female ratio is about even. That resulted in a pretty mixed, if fiction-dominated reading list: Ron Currie’s Everything Matters!, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland, A Visit from the Goon Squad, The Vagrants, Blindness, A Confederacy of Dunces. Port says the mixed-gender aspect makes for interesting discussion, particularly when the talk steers to sex and violence, like the massive rape scene in Blindness.
Twenty-three year old Michael Waldrep said that his co-ed book club occasionally makes room for “super-mannish” selections, like Wells Tower’s Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned. “The women enjoyed it,” he said. “In fact, [they] enjoyed it more than I did, because I found it weirdly demeaning to Southerners.” He said they also read Bill Buford’s foodie adventure book, Heat, which also falls in the mannish camp. That type of variety keeps Waldrep interested: “If I was in a club that just wanted to read hip contemporary fiction I would go fucking crazy.”
Even Proehl and his bros thought the co-ed thing might be worth trying, so they set up a dual meeting with one of Muldoon’s book clubs. It became a big exercise in compromise. Proehl and Muldoon provided dinner — make-your-own burritos, decidedly un-themed — and the participants all sat together. They’d agreed to read James Frey’s Bright Shiny Morning (the debut novel — sort of — by the erstwhile Oprah book club memoirist), which most people liked, in Muldoon’s recollection.
“We definitely had a conversation about the book,” she recalled. “Then the conversation veered into gossip. And then one of the guys spoke up and said, ‘Usually, I would have to call a halt to all the gossip.’ After he made that comment, they explained all their strict rules.”
The women looked at each other and laughed. From then on, Muldoon said, “We felt like we had to be on good behavior.”