Women's Book Clubs Shouldn't Be Wine Clubs

I am the tiger mom of writing clubs. When I first joined one a few years ago, I quickly realized it was more of an excuse for friends to catch up than a writers' workshop. So I did what any self-respecting workaholic would: made the club more intense. When I hosted, everyone had to write and read their piece on the subject of trauma. Now that was a good meeting.

My intensity explains why I've always been hesitant to join book clubs. A quick Google search shows most clubs favour some alliterative combo of women, wit, wine and wisdom. Husbands laugh at their wives who use literature as an excuse to impress their friends with phyllo-pastry appetizers. A colleague told me her female book club sometimes calls itself a "social club" -- a more honest description of their gatherings.

So what's the big deal? At least women are buying book-sized coasters and being social.

The problem isn't with the clubs themselves, but with the stereotype they reinforce: women may read fiction, but they don't take it seriously.

Many think ladies and literature make a frivolous combination. University of Toronto instructor David Gilmour recently declared he only teaches "serious heterosexual guys." Oprah made infamous the perception that female book clubs are therapy sessions. And then there's that money-making empire of romance novels, which, quite frankly, is our own fault.

But women keep fiction alive. Sixty-four per cent of ladies read at least one book in 2012 compared to only 45 per cent of men. Fifty-six per cent read at least one literary book compared with 37 per cent of dudes. Publishers love us. Canadian novelist Robert Hough told me his agent insists that to get foreign attention, he must write about a strong female protagonist. And the stereotype that all our clubs are based on wine and whining isn't even accurate.

Hough has been to around 200 women's book clubs as a speaker and says they aren't all gossip fests (although admittedly, he's probably not invited to many of those). "Some of them are really scholarly and serious and they show up and they have questions," he says. "And then some of them are really kind of loud and rude and really don't care I'm there at all. And most are sort of in the middle."

Hough says women's meetings are no more social than his own all-male book club (but a different kind of social. He can't remember all the names of the other members' wives).

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Many ladies in stereotypical book clubs actually want a more intellectual experience -- they just don't know how to create one. Typical book clubs form when a group of friends realizes "hey, we all love to read, and we just don't do that enough with the stresses of modern life." You know what else people don't do regularly? Catch up with their friends. So when it comes to "book club" night, discussing The Goldfinch takes a back seat to someone's new baby, job or lover.

Oh, and wine ruins everything.

Sorry, but the good book clubs tend to ban booze. They also have a structure that keeps literature the focus.

The Fortnightly Club of Lindsay, Ont. is about as old and earnest as Virginia Woolf. It was started in 1899 by Canadian businessman Joseph Flavelle's granddaughter, Ethel, and a group of like-minded women. Legend has it she would stand to deliver research papers on silliness like Greek and Roman history -- without any notes. One incarnation of the club read Winston Churchill's series on the Second World War. Someone always kept minutes, a tradition that continues today.

The Fortnightly now has 20 members whose ages range from late 20s to late '70s. They only accept a new member if someone drops out, and the prospective woman is briefed on all the responsibilities beforehand. Most meetings have a theme, and the leader presents a 45-minute research paper on the topic. This year featured Arctic sovereignty and First Nations land claims. Catherine Warner, the club's second oldest member at 73, presented on Chrystia Freeland's book about plutocrats.

The society has a president who makes sure the conversation stays on track and a secretary. A committee chooses the program for the 10 meetings in the upcoming year. They host at each other's homes and children know to disappear. There is no alcohol (except once when the topic involved wine).

When book clubs meet after a long day, members want to drink and unwind. That's why Janet McDonald's gatherings in Hawaii, where she escapes the Canadian winters, are at 10:30 a.m. each month.

The main ingredient to a successful book club is discipline -- something hard to achieve with a group of friends and a bottle of wine. But it is possible. You can limit booze, make a schedule, appoint a group leader or invite the author. No one would dare talk about baby spit up in front of Margaret Atwood.

And if that seems too intense, call yourselves what you are: a wine club, a supper club or simply, a ladies night. That way, maybe the perception of women and books will move past cupcakes and bubbly.