Discussing Literary Fiction

The latest endeavor of the Adult Reading Round Table (ARRT) here in Illinois is a quarterly literary fiction book discussion organized by two members of the Steering Committee for the enjoyment and enlightenment of any of ARRT’s 100+ members who may care to participate.  You guessed it   — I’m one of the two organizers, and I actually led the first discussion, which was held about two weeks ago at the library where I volunteer.

Thirteen librarians signed up for the experience, which required them to read Susan Vreeland’s recent novel, Luncheon of the Boating Party.  We met for two hours, first taking time to get acquainted and learn about everyone’s involvement in book discussions, either as a leader or a member.  Then we looked at a definition of “literary fiction” taken from ARRT’s own publication, The Popular Reading List, a workbook that examines many genres and helps users to determine their familiarity with the authors who are the most prominent practitioners of those genres.  This led to a discussion of whether or not Luncheon of the Boating Party really qualifies as “literary fiction,” and if so, in which ways it meets the criteria.  (The participants decided it did fit within the category, but could also be viewed as “historical fiction.”)

Then it was on to a discussion of the book, conducted over glasses of lemonade and nibbles on cookies, ChexMix and M&Ms.  (The library didn’t allow more appropriate fare, such as wine and cheese!)  It was interesting to me, as the leader, to discover how many of the group were unfamiliar with the paintings of Renoir and the Impressionist period when he flourished.  Some felt the book contained too much detail about the time and setting, and they wanted more action.  But everyone agreed they learned much from reading the book and enjoyed Vreeland’s ability to convey passion for artistic creation.

Participants were referred to Vreeland’s outstanding web site (www.svreeland.com), which contains a wealth of material about her and her books, including detailed background information about her subjects and sample discussion questions.  Of special interest was the news gleaned from the web site that Vreeland’s next book will be about Louis Comfort Tiffany and the little known woman in his life who actually contributed to his art in a significant manner.

One of the participants arranged for an image of the title painting to be projected on the wall as a backdrop for our discussion.  We also shared art books about Renoir with examples of his work, some of which depicted characters in the novel, as well as his self-portrait.

Most of the people in the group confessed that they did not regularly read literary fiction and that they came to the program hoping to learn more about it.  Quite a few members mentioned that one of the pleasures of attending a book discussion planned by someone else is that the leader often picks a title for discussion that you would never choose to read on your own.

Both I and the other organizer felt that the gathering had been a success, and we hope everyone comes back for our next session.  Of course, we’d like to pick up a few more participants the second time around, and we think that may happen, once the word gets out about how much people enjoyed our first meeting.  The choice for July’s discussion is Ian MacEwan’s Amsterdam.  We’re hoping that group members will suggest additional titles for future sessions and even volunteer to lead (or co-lead) a discussion.

The Quarterly Literary Fiction Book Discussion can be viewed in a number of ways:  a chance to learn more about planning and conducting book discussions; an opportunity to become more closely acquainted with writers of literary fiction; a way to experience a book discussion as a participant, rather than as a leader; a time to discover a particular work in some depth and then utilize that experience as the basis for another discussion of the same book, which you lead in your own community; or simply as a break from the normal routine of library work — an enjoyable “day out” talking about books with your colleagues, rather than library patrons.

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About the Author:

Ted Balcom lives in Arlington Heights, IL and conducts workshops on leading book discussions, about which he has also published a book: Book Discussions for Adults: A Leader’s Guide (American Library Association, 1992).

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