How bad could a two-hour book group be?

The women held on to their fixed notions like barnacles clinging to a slippery rock

GRAFTON — The written word and all luminous art will take us to places we never dreamed we'd go. But what is art?

“Ay, there's the rub,” as Hamlet said. Debates about what qualifies as art are eternal, often contentious, and dreadfully boring.

In her book Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, author Jeanette Winterson wrote that “every day, in countless ways, you and I convince ourselves about ourselves. True art, when it happens to us, challenges the 'I' that we are.”

I first observed this phenomenon in college writing seminars where some aspiring writers revealed more about their own prejudices, jealousies, and fears rather than the merits of the writing they were critiquing.

Many years ago in a short-story workshop at Bennington College, a dozen students sat at a long wooden table discussing a story narrated by a divorced mother. She and her two teenage daughters were coping with their grief and anger following the death of the girls' father six months earlier. He died in a motorcycle accident under the influence of alcohol.

After the girls were in bed, their mother sat on the stoop of their double-wide trailer, took a few tokes of marijuana, and watched the night sky.

The story was flawless. All but one participant advised that not one word should be changed.

The lone dissenter sat across from me at the table. He wore a gray buzz cut and a severely pained expression. He droned on and on, chastising the “bad mother” for smoking weed. It threatened to become a free-range bashing fest until our professor intervened.

* * *

Alas, there is no easy escape from critics encountered outside academic settings.

At a Grafton dinner party, I was chatting with a neighbor about the new selections in our library.

“I don't want to read one more novel about India,” she exclaimed, as if she had just stepped in a fresh load of dog poop.

I admit that I'm jaded. For this reason, I've shunned book clubs, but one winter when I was house-sitting in Maryland, my friend Margaret invited me to be her guest at her women's book club, and my curiosity compelled me to accept.

It would be a new experience. It might be illuminating. And, really, how bad could two hours be?

The group would be discussing Per Petterson's novel Out Stealing Horses, translated from the Norwegian by Anne Born.

Margaret picked me up, and we traveled the snowy back roads to a spacious 18th-century farmhouse. Our hostess greeted us at the door and ushered us into the kitchen where a dozen women, several of them dressed in corduroy slacks and cashmere sweaters, were sipping wine and filling their plates with an impressive array of potluck offerings. Introductions were made, and the atmosphere was convivial.

After dinner, we adjourned to the living room. A fire blazed in the fireplace. The guests settled on long, comfy couches or in big, deep chairs that wrapped around the occupants like cocoons. We all held copies of Petterson's book in our laps.

The protagonist, Trond Sander, is in his 60s when he leaves his professional job in the city and returns to the rural countryside where he grew up. His wife and his sister have recently died. The narrative flows seamlessly between past and present.

Trond's father had been a courier for the Nazi Resistance. After the war, he abandoned his family, and they never heard from him again. Trond still grieves the loss of his beloved father and the mystery of his disappearance.

Most of the women trashed him. They deemed him “too cold, devoid of emotion.” Peterson's narrative was “too spare” and his descriptions of the Norwegian countryside were “too cold.”

My mind orbited toward dissent. Norway is cold. Should Peterson have set his story in Miami? Or India? I sank deeper into my chair.

Then, like one of those wise professors from my past, a woman seated by the fire spoke.

She had visited Norway, had studied its history and culture, and was familiar with the landscape. The consequences of war and abandonment last for generations, she said, and the Nazi occupation haunts the collective psyche of the country.

The women held on to their fixed notions like barnacles clinging to a slippery rock.

One reader was particular scathing.

“I loathed Trond, another inarticulate man, out of touch with his feminine side. He didn't even cry about the deaths of his wife and sister.”

I squirmed in my chair. I felt protective of Trond, as if he were my brother. Throughout history, many humans have grieved mightily without shedding tears. In our modern American culture, stoicism has gotten a bad rap. We are so busy “emoting” we forget that some people's emotions run so deep they can't make words.

When the commentator finished denigrating Trond's character, she declared that “the whole structure of the book is wrong, wrong, wrong! A book should have a beginning, middle, and end, like Dickens.”

I tried to imagine what James Joyce, widely regarded as the master of the open-ended short story, might say in retort.

* * *

A linear narrative, progressing in a well-organized fashion to a satisfactory denouement, can provide readers with a sense of order and stability, but in reality our lives are open-ended until death and time is only linear on clocks. We might crave order, resist change, and strive to control our circumstances, and we will still experience chaos, heartbreak, and loss.

This week, I am culling books from my shelves and packing them to go to the book-sale room at our library. I feel a tinge of regret.

These books have been my companions, guides, and teachers. Without them, I would've been a shut-in confined to the view outside my windows. These stories, fiction and non-fiction, have challenged the “I” that I am and given me a more expansive view of the world and human nature.

As I load the books into my car, I say a prayer to Francis de Sales, patron saint of editors, journalists, and writers. I'm not a Catholic, but I ask him to keep the stories safe from book clubs and the perils of free expression.

Surely he will be merciful and send them to homes where readers fear no art.

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