When we think of book groups or clubs, our first thoughts are likely to be of a group of suburban women gathered around a coffee table with sweet snacks and hot drinks. Or we think of libraries and bookshops, were such groups draw on more diverse and urbane memberships. Common to these face-to-face groups is the idea of socialising around books – indeed, linguistic studies of face-to-face book groups have pointed out that a great deal of social interaction takes place that is not about the book at all. Online book groups are a different matter altogether. With the exception of private book groups on social media sites, online participants usually don’t know each other offline. These groups cultivate discourse often devoid of personal stories that aren’t book related. More book talk than social talk, might online discussions about books become a new form of literary criticism?
I wouldn’t have asked this question some five years ago when I started my research on online book groups (published as The Discourse of Reading Groups). First of all, book groups are largely about readers’ opinions of books. Which books they liked and which they didn’t. Genre book groups, such as crime, thriller and romance, tend to focus on book recommendations and comparing one book to another. Some readers appear to use these groups to build identities as fans of one author or another, listing all of the books they’ve read. This was my introduction to online book groups and hardly the stuff of literary criticism. But that was me being a professional reader – academic/reviewer – or perhaps just a snob.
Some professional readers also look down upon the emphasis on reading for pleasure that can dictate opinions and impressions in book group discussions. This is specially the case with genre books. But this is where I break ranks. Reading as a leisure activity goes back to the days of Aristotle – the first literary critic. Though he may not have used those exact words, the relationships between learning, aesthetic experience and pleasure were fundamental in Aristotelean thought.
Once I moved on to other types of online book groups, I discovered that in giving opinions, what often emerges is a sense of empathy – the ways that books reflect the narratives of our own lives or have characters whose reactions, feelings of pain, love and fear touch our own experiences. But online book groups, unlike face-to-face, are inadvertently recording these opinions and experiences. They make them available to anyone with internet access to read. From these postings, consensus and debate flourish. And from them we can see cultural trends and ways of thinking – much like the job of the literary critic.
Close readings of the type found in literary criticism are also not lost in online book groups. This is because not only is social talk diluted among strangers, but also because most online communication is asynchronous. The time between postings in online conversations could be as little as a few minutes and as long as several weeks. These time gaps allow readers to think about their interpretations of books and about their responses to other readers’ points. Readers can draw from other written sources, including other books by the same author or with similar themes, journalistic book reviews and literary criticism, and can comment on language in ways more considered than in synchronous face-to-face contexts. For close readings, I recommend the online book group Booktalk.org and the discussion group around The Guardian book blog.
Could the array of online book group discussions from the highly empathetic, Oprah-style book club, to the analytical be harnessed in a way to give it credence as a new wave of literary criticism? To answer this, we need to recognise the unspoken opposition. It’s not just about the absence of professional readers, the self-identification or the idea of pleasure reading lurking in the background. It’s the internet. Open to all, the web has become the world’s soapbox. It’s abundant with opinions masquerading as news, unsourced arguments and photos of people’s cats. Literary criticism, on the other hand, has been cultivated in universities and has been spread through the written word in the required peer-reviewed publication. But there’s an overlap going on here – traditional literary criticism in its peer-reviewed forms is also a part of the internet, accessible to all.
It was Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web, who said that he had hoped the internet would ‘cross barriers and connect cultures.’ I share this hope. I’d like to think that online book groups and other online discussions about literature will help to bridge the gaps – educational, social, class-based – between professional and ordinary readers.