07 Dec 2011

Book Club Challenges Part II:
Critics, Prize Winners, and Top Ten Lists

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In an earlier”Book Club Challenges” blog, we spoke about abandoning a book when a reading group, for one reason or another, doesn’t want to finish it. This happened when we chose David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, and much debate ensued before we agreed to put it aside. In this blog, we would like to address another book club conundrum: how much stock should we place in the critics, prize winners, and ‘top ten’ lists?

How often has your book club been guided by a wonderful review or a Booker Prize winner (could be Pulitzer or National Book Award) only to discover that the title was generally disliked by your members? How much influence should smart women afford to what are considered esteemed novels, and how should the conversation be handled when a winner turns out to be a loser?

Just this month, our groups read The Death of the Adversary by Hans Kielson and Rabbit is Rich by John Updike. In the case of the former, the New York Times wrote:

For busy, harried or distractible readers who have the time and energy only to skim the opening paragraph of a review, I’ll say this as quickly and clearly as possible: “The Death of the Adversary” is a masterpiece, and Hans Keilson is a genius.

Our group agreed that The Death of the Adversary was extraordinary, worthwhile, and led to an excellent discussion; however, we would not have stated the case quite as strongly and did not consider the novel as a masterpiece.

Rabbit is Rich is quite another story. Our group absolutely loved it. They agreed with the critics and looked back to a review published in the New York Times when the novel was released. John Leonard made the observation that “Harry is also America, going down the rabbit hole.” This comment  testifies to the strength of Updike’s characterization of the All-American Harry Angstrom as well as his commentary on the political, social, and economic climate of the early 1980s. Nonetheless, Updike had his critics. Reviewers found the sex incessant (yes, it is) and the novel often wandering from its center. But, all in all, it is a fun read and holding up thirty years after publication.

So, at this time of year, when everyone is releasing the Critic’s Choice and Top Ten list, readers are again confronted with who to trust. How much weight does your reading group place in these recommendations? Are you generally pleased with the choices? Post your comment on the blog so others can hear your point of view.


written by
Lisa Forman Rosen is an avid reader and facilitator of book clubs in Miami, Florida. She has worked at the University of Miami since 1986, first in the Department of English Composition as a lecturer and now at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as a writer. Lisa created this site to share her love of literature with others and expand the conversation into the virtual world.
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Critics, Prize Winners, and Top Ten Lists”

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