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Discussion: Middlemarch for Book Clubs

middlemarch for book clubsRecently Open Letters Monthly Senior Editor Professor Rohan Maitzen published an e-book titled Middlemarch for Book Clubs (available as a free Kobo download). And although the book’s title seems to promise precious postmodern absurdist fiction along the lines of Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian or J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest, the book, subtitled “Ideas for Reading and Discussion,” is actually just what it claims to be: a reading group-friendly guide to one of the longest and least-inviting potential club picks in the entire Western canon. Since Eliot’s 800-page masterpiece is a recondite and immeasurably brainy examination of life in a small town in Victorian England, it hardly seems a likely pick for an every-third-Saturday friendly chat over wine and cheesy bits. The juxtaposition intrigued OLM‘s managing editor Steve Donoghue, who tracked Rohan Maitzen down and peppered her with questions:

SD: It had to be your abiding passion for George Eliot and Middlemarch that inspired this project, yes? But to what extent do you think it’s possible to convey that passion to reading groups more accustomed to fare along the lines of Eat, Pray, Love? There’s a certain intimidation factor to overcome, isn’t there?

RM: That’s a great place to start, because those are the assumptions — about Middlemarch and about book clubs — that this whole project set out to contradict. You are right that my “abiding passion” for this great novel inspired me, but that passion itself is proof that Middlemarch isn’t necessarily intimidating. I fell in love with it when I was 18, when I tucked it in my backpack to read on the train across Europe knowing nothing about it except that it had something to do with a young girl looking (as I was) for a meaningful life. At that time I had no intention of being an English major, much less an English professor: I was reading it out of personal interest and for pleasure. That I’m still rereading it decades later tells you just how rich and complex the novel turns out to be, but that’s no reason to avoid reading it for the first time, or to assume that its status as a “masterpiece” means it’s inaccessible.

I think, too, that there are unfair stereotypes about book clubs. While I’m sure there are groups that want only the lightest fare, or that put wine and socializing above literary analysis, there are also many that bring avid readers together in search of challenging books and substantial discussion. I’m in one myself, in fact, and my experience there — where we have read Flaubert and George Sand, Elizabeth Bowen and Elizabeth Taylor, George Gissing and Barbara Pym, and much more — is part of what made me bristle at the implications of a much-shared online story headlined “Middlemarch Kills Book Clubs.” We’re tougher than that — and Middlemarch is anything but deadening.

SD: “Middlemarch is anything but deadening” – we’re in total agreement about that! But nevertheless, headlines like the one you mention reflect a fairly widespread sentiment. So play Devil’s Advocate for a minute: what aspects of your beloved Middlemarch might prompt such reactions – and indeed, might furnish the need for a book like the one you’ve written?

RM: There’s no point avoiding the most obvious issue: Middlemarch is long! Now, unlike some people, you and I are not deterred by a book’s bulk, and neither are a lot of just the kind of readers likely to be in book groups. Long books can attract readers as well as scare them off — look at the recent success of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for example. But Middlemarch is long even by Victorian standards.

It helps to be aware that the novel’s length is not an accident. Eliot herself said “I don’t see how the sort of thing I want to do could have been done briefly”; the novel’s scope is part of its design and serves its purpose of giving a broad as well as deep analysis of society. Its length does pose some challenges for today’s time-pressed readers, but the novel is also structured to help us manage it: Middlemarch is divided into eight volumes that were originally published separately, over many months. One option for book clubs is to approach the novel in the same way, a part at a time; to help with this, Middlemarch for Book Clubs provides discussion questions for each section as well as suggesting patterns and connections worth considering across the novel as a whole.

Another potential sticking point is that Middlemarch is not just a Victorian novel but a historical novel. Published in 1871-2, it is set in the years leading up to the Reform Bill of 1832, and is rich with references and allusions that may be unfamiliar to 21st-century readers. Some readers may not mind not getting every detail, but for those who like to know what everything means, Middlemarch for Book Clubs includes an overview of some of the excellent scholarly editions available. It also includes its own brief explanations of some of the novel’s key social and political contexts.

Finally, there’s the novel’s prose. It’s hard for me to keep playing Devil’s Advocate here, because I just love Eliot’s sentences: their complexity, their insight, their irony, their wit, their range. It’s true they are dense, and they require patience and close attention. But they reward it so richly! Eliot’s narrator in Middlemarch could herself be considered one of the greatest characters in Victorian literature. She is intrusive, often addressing readers directly, or commenting self-consciously on the story she’s telling, and for some readers these breaches of the ‘fourth wall’ may be disconcerting, even off-putting. It’s in this layer of the novel, though, that much of its meaning lies, as well as much of its humor and pathos: Middlemarch is a novel that deliberately engages us in its intellectual and philosophical activity. Reading sections out loud (or listening to the audiobook read by Juliet Stevenson) might help overcome any initial resistance to these strategies: as the narrator’s voice comes alive, the power of Eliot’s prose will too.

SD: Hah! Your “Devil’s Advocacy” has a strange way of sounding like plain old advocacy! And in order to help more readers fall in love with the power of Eliot’s prose, you wrote Middlemarch for Book Clubs – and then decided to self-publish it. What was the self-publishing process like? Any unforeseen (or just unavoidable) pleasures or pitfalls in creating an e-book? How did you decide which route to take, out of the many options now available to writers wanting to self-publish?

RM: I had already created Middlemarch for Book Clubs as a website, but I thought readers might like to have an easily portable option for its materials, so I collated them and set about learning how to convert them into e-reader formats. I’m a Kobo user myself, and Kobo uses ePub, which is the most widely used ebook format, so I started with that. The most widely used ebook platform, however, is Amazon’s, so I also converted the book into Kindle format. It’s a painstaking process — you have to be quite meticulous about every step — but it’s not actually difficult if you just follow the instructions carefully. It helped that I wasn’t doing anything complicated with layout or graphics (tables or charts or illustrations, for instance).

I never imagined Middlemarch for Book Clubs as a particularly commercial product — it’s never going to be any kind of bestseller, though of course I’d be pleasantly surprised if there did turn out to be real demand for it! So I haven’t worried too much about the kind of marketing questions someone would have who was trying to launch, say, a novel on their own. For people with loftier sales ambitions, there’s a lot of advice around about self-publishing, including comparisons of the major distributors like Smashwords, CreateSpace, or Kindle Direct. For now anyway, I just wanted to learn the self-publishing process while increasing the accessibility of the content I’d prepared.


A satisfied customer

SD: So now that you’ve mastered the process, what about the inevitable thinking of sequels? Any other formidable doorstops you fancy book clubs might like with the proper kind of guidance?

RM: I’m definitely interested in expanding this book club project. I have my sights set on Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss to do next: it’s a very different novel than Middlemarch in many ways — more personal, more immediately dramatic, and in some ways much more frustrating, because it focuses on the intractable problem of competing and incompatible values. I think it would generate great book club discussions! I’m open to suggestions about other Victorian novels or novelists book clubs have considered but backed away from — and I’d also be very happy to hear from any book clubs that have found Middlemarch for Book Clubs useful for inspiring and informing their discussions.