September 13, 2009

Julie & Julia: The Reading Group Guide; or, Why English Professors Aren't Welcome in Book Clubs

More and more books are published now with appendices aimed at book clubs. Typical features are interviews with the author, questions for discussion, and suggestions for further reading ("if you liked this book, you'll also like...") . I'm always struck by how different the discussion questions are from the kinds of questions I would ask of, or prepare for, my classes. I just finished Julie & Julia, which comes with a set of "Questions and Topics for Discussion" which epitomize what I think of as the book club approach. Here they are, with my answers, and then some reflections on where or why things fall apart for me.

1. Julie has such a remarkable relationship with Julia Child, despite never having met her. What did you think of the relationship that Julie built in her mind? And why does it not matter, in some sense, when Julie finds out that Julia wasn't an admirer of hers or the Project?
I thought there was something artificial about the way Julie presented her "relationship" with Julia Child. Although allusions to and references from Child's memoir and letters are included in Powell's book, the narrative does not indicate that she knew anything much about Julia Child when the project began. She suggests that she learns about JC's personality from the text of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and sometimes her examples illustrate this well. Otherwise, though, she does seem to be largely imagining someone without her own weaknesses and failings. I guess that's why it doesn't ultimately matter much to Julie that the real JC dismisses her project.
2. Throughout the book, various people become involved with the Project: Julie's husband, her friends, and several of her family members. Discuss the different roles each played in the Project. Which people were most helpful and supportive? Who was occasionally obstructionist?
Julie's husband and brother and friend Isabel are the most supportive. Julie's mother is occasionally obstructionist. Are you checking to see if I read the whole book?
3. Did you find Julie to be a likable character? Did you relate to her insecurities, anxieties, and initial discontent? Why do you think it is that she was able to finish the Project despite various setbacks?
No, I didn't find Julie that likable (I liked the Amy Adams version of her better, actually). I did not particularly "relate to" her anxieties and so on, except in the general way that everyone sometimes finds their day job tedious. She struck me as self-indulgent and self-involved; she is histrionic and something of an exhibitionist. But why does it matter whether I liked her or not?

I think she was able to finish the Project because she was persistent.
4. The Julie/Julia Project is obsessive and chaotic, yet it manages to bring a sort of order to Julie's life. Have you ever gone to obsessive lengths in an attempt to, ironically, make things more manageable? Why do you think Julie does (or doesn't) succeed in this?
No I haven't.

Because she's persistent? Because she got lucky?
5. If someone were to ask you about this book, how would you describe it? Is it a memoir of reinvention? An homage to Julia Child? A rags-to-riches story? A reflection on cooking and the centrality of food in our lives? Or is it all (or none) of these?
It's "life writing," isn't it? I'd say it is a bit of all of these specific things, in a mash-up sort of way.
6. Did Julie's exploits in her tiny kitchen make you want to cook? Or did they make you thankful that you don't have to debone a duck or saute a liver? Even if your tastes may not coincide with Julia Child's recipes, did the book give you a greater appreciation of food and cooking?
Want to cook? No, not really, at least not more than usual. I certainly have no desire to debone a duck or saute a liver. I have never particularly enjoyed cooking (and I hate planning and shoppping for meals). On the other hand, I grew up in a house where good food was much appreciated and always a big part of family and festive occasions. Some of the scenes in which Julie's friends gathered to share her latest experiments, then, did make me wistful that for various reasons food in my own house is often a difficulty rather than a pleasure, and that the rest of my family is too far away to share in the few special meals we do put together. But why are we talking about me? Isn't this "reading" group supposed to talk about the book?
7. At various points in the book, Julie finds that cooking makes her question her own actions and values. What did you make of her lobster guilt, for example, or her thoughts on extracting bone marrow? Have you ever encountered these issues while cooking, or while going through other everyday motions of life? Have you come to conclusions similar to or different from Julie's?
Well, I've eaten lobster, and I can't say I was ever terribly guilt-ridden about it. But every thoughtful person has presumably wondered about the ethics of eating meat, even if they haven't personally extracted bone marrow. But why are we talking about me again?
8. When Julie began the Project, she knew little to nothing about blogging. What do you think blogging about her experiences offered her? Does writing about events in your life help you understand and appreciate them more? Do you think the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn't gained so much attention? Who was the blog mainly for, Julie or her readers?
I think blogging offered her a platform, an audience, and eventually a community. I'm not sure if writing about events in my life helps me understand them. It helps me give form and voice to my own point of view, but that's not necessarily the same as achieving understanding. Yes, of course the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn't gained so much attention. She might have given up on the project; she certainly would not have gotten the book deal or the movie. The blog was mainly for Julie in the beginning; it became something she was also doing for, and with the reinforcement of, her readers. (On the other hand, her term "bleaders" captures the rather dismissive tone she often takes towards the people who cared enough to send her money and goodies.) But the book isn't just a transcription of the blog. Actually, I wish it were: maybe then there would have been more cooking and less solipsistic meandering.
It's not that there aren't some potentially interesting topics here--and of course this particular set is skewed in a particular direction because the book is a memoir (of sorts) and so tempts us towards analysis of, and commentary on, its protagonist as a real person. Still, there's very little sense here of the book as a literary construction, or of the book as offering not just personal revelations but revelations about particular cultures and problems at particular moments in time. What about the gender politics of cooking in the two different eras, something I thought the film actually handled much more directly? (Surely it is no coincidence that the one editor who "gets" the brilliance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the film, for instance, is a woman who takes it home and actually cooks from it?) How does Julie's gleeful self-presentation as a foul-mouthed slattern (maggots under the dish rack?) complicate the conventional association of cooking with domesticity? How are Julie's gynecological problems relevant to the book's interrogation of femininity and identity? What's the function of the Isabel sub-plot? How are love, sex, and marriage configured in the parallel Julie / Julia stories? For that matter, what about sex and food, Julie's rival sources of pleasure? What about the structure of the book, or its language? What about the profanity, which Julie seems rather proud of? There seems to me plenty to be said and done about Julie & Julia without dragging me into it: it's not about me, and I learn nothing (and explain nothing) about the book by falling into personal anecdote.

I think #5 and #8 are the best of this question set: #5 could open up a range of issues about genre, especially life writing: what we expect from it, what the models and conventions are, how autobiographical voices are gendered, how social networking has affected our ideas of privacy and friendship, and so on; #8, if it kept away from speculation about how things might have gone (now there's a fruitless direction for discussion!), points towards what is probably the most novel feature of this entire phenomenon (its roots in blogging) and raises important questions about voice (again) and audience. Otherwise, many of these questions are exactly the kind of thing I steer my classes away from. In particular, it's not relevant whether you like the character: literature is not a popularity contest or a beauty pageant, and characters you hate may be the most important to understanding what a book is doing. "Relatable" characters are usually ones that don't make us think, that we're perfectly comfortable, and thus mentally passive, with. And there's no merit in sympathizing with someone you can "relate to," after all--no possibility for moral growth. While your personal experience (with food, say, in this case) inevitably affects your initial response, sharing anecdotes is also at best a warm-up exercise for literary analysis. At the end of the day, the characters in the book are not you, their experience is not your experience, and the point of the exercise is not personal enlightenment or self-revelation, but something far more other-directed, something that respects the book as offering you something rather than reflecting you back at yourself.

13 comments:

Colleen said...

The next time someone asks me why I refuse to join any book clubs, I'm just going to refer this to this excellent post.

Russell said...

Hear, hear, Dr. Maitzen! You give the rather icky all-about-me approach to lit crit the dressing down it so richly deserves. Nicely done.

Amateur Reader said...

Ah, Colleen, it depends on the book club! Wuthering Expectations was in part a response to my having moved away from a book club that employed a rather different level of dicourse. Plus, there was food and wine.

maryb said...

ha! I read this just as I was writing a post in which I am contemplating taking a hiatus from both of my reading groups.

I was thinking that if I were a better blogger I would find a way to say that I want a hiatus because I'm tired of the terrible discussions. Then I read this and now I might just say it.

Peter said...

Russell: I wouldn't even use the label "lit crit" to describe the responses those questions seek to evoke. Most of them (but,as Dr. Matizen notes, some questions have an idea at their core that could be spun and redirected in an interesting way) are utterly unlike anything that a literary critic would propose or pursue.

Rohan Maitzen said...

AR, I think I'd be happy to join any book club that had you as a member...if I were allowed! You make a fair point that different groups will do, and want, different things.

My main objection to my own post is that at least in theory, it's fine for people to read for their own purposes, including "self-revelation"--or the other book club favourite I've noticed, which is inspiration (as demonstrated in the recent "Dalhousie Reads" event on The Book of Negroes). In practice, though, it does start to sound awfully solipsistic, and the problem I see (perhaps maryb's problem with her groups?) is that when things get so personal, it's terribly awkward to object. It's certainly difficult to evaluate, which is one reason why academic approaches really must be different (you can't give someone a "C" on their life experiences--or can you? hmmm...)

JRussell said...

In partial defence of book clubs: Lots of people who are not very good athletes enjoy recreational sports. People who play hockey or baseball for a living might not want to play with them (nor of course would I want to watch them on TV!) Maybe the real problem is having the questions printed in the book, since not all readers belong to clubs, though I increasingly suspect that a lot of book are written with them as the intended market (especially of course books with cutesy titles including words like club or society?)

To be a bit more serious, although we as professors want to move students beyond the idea that they should just focus on whether characters are likable or relatable, that remains one of the main sources of interest in narrative, I think. See Freud's essay "The Creative Writer and Daydreaming." The epic adventure, quest, or romantic love plots give us plenty to identify with. On the other hand it is much more difficult to engage most students in discussion of satirical and ironic literature, where in Frye's words the hero is inferior in power or intelligence to ourselves, rather than equal or superior. (Samuel Johnson says in Rambler No. 4 that there are some characters who should never be represented, an issue that Coetzee explores in Elizabeth Costello). I'm sure most professors have their list of critically esteemed books that they would not teach because they personally do not find them "relatable." Our own personal form of ethical criticism, I suppose.

Jeanne said...

I like your questions better, especially the one about Julie as a "slattern." And you've put your finger on what bothers me about those book club questions at the back. But not everyone has to talk about books the same way--I'm always glad to see people reading, on whatever terms.

Students are different, at least college students--they've signed up to learn something new, not just talk about how they feel.

Colleen said...

I would also join a book club if it featured Amateur Reader. Wine not even required.

Rose City Reader said...

I'm reading this book right now, so I am not going to read the rest of this post until I finish -- but I am already looking forward to it.

In general, I can't stand the questions they put at the end of the books. Especially the idiotic questions that have nothing to do with the book, like, "Character X has problems with her mother. Do you have a difficult relationship with your mother?"

I'll be back to this post when I finish the book. In the meantime, I'm off to explore more on your blog.

I am pleased to have found your blog. I am working my way through the blogroll on Wuthering Expectations, looking for bloggers who share similar reading tastes with me. Looks like I found one!

JaneGS said...

I knew there was a reason I never bothered with the questions at the back of books :) I enjoyed this post immensely...and I'm still planning on reading the book.

I've never had the time to join a book club. I have a close personal relationship with my PC and the internet because after I graduated from college, I rarely encountered people who liked to read the books that I like to read. With the exception of my JASNA regional group, which really functions like a book club, I think of my book club as consisting of my blogger friends and literary discussion boards.

Rohan Maitzen said...

Rose City Reader: Welcome! I'm always glad to make new connections. I completely agree about those personal questions. But I did in fact enjoy Julie & Julia--though I admit I enjoyed the movie version more, partly because there was more Julia in it.

Jane, I find it amazing the way I have ended up feeling like I do have "friends" and a community on the internet, even though I have never met most of the people and some of them I know only by their pseudonyms. One of the more interesting features of Julie & Julia for me was the attention to blogging--which I was pleased that the movie also tried to attend to. Perhaps it will come to seem as dated as the AOL stuff in You've Got Mail, but there's no question but what the internet has made it possible to get to know people in new ways. Nice, eh?

maitresse said...

This is great! I can't tell you how many times I've been excluded from ot kicked out of book clubs for these very reasons. Each time I fumed, "If this were a cooking club and I were a professional chef they'd be all over me to teach them technique." But everything thinks they know how to discuss they like-- apparently 7 years on a PhD doesn't give you any sort of expertise.