“There are two sound ways for a girl to deal with a young man who is insistent. She can marry him, or she can say ‘No.’” -- Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1961 In 1962, a 40-year-old woman published a guide for single girls that shocked a nation (and spawned future memoir-manuals.) The author was Helen Gurley Brown, and the book was Sex and the Single Girl: The Unmarried Woman’s Guide to Men, Career, the Apartment, Diet, Fashion, Money and Men. Racy title aside, the simple teal-blue book jacket was far from flashy -- if anything, it looked like a secret handbook. But the message inside was loud and clear, and Helen megaphoned it to the world: Single girls had sex, and often with multiple partners before marriage. Why pretend otherwise? “Should a man think you are a virgin?” she asked in one chapter. “I can’t imagine why, if you aren’t. Is he? Is there anything particularly attractive about a thirty-four-year-old virgin?” Drawing from her years of experience as a penny-pinching bachelorette in Los Angeles, Helen gave single women advice on everything from keeping a budget and finding an apartment to wearing makeup, meeting men, and staging a successful affair -- she’d survived plenty of trysts with married men -- but she was no longer single herself. She was comfortably married to the editor and movie producer David Brown, who had conjured up the idea for the book in the first place, and her status as Mrs. Brown was the ultimate testament to the fact that her man-trapping tips really worked, at any age. Though Sex and the Single Girl had no shortage of critics (Robert Kirsch of the Los Angeles Times called it “as tasteless a book as I have read this year”), it was an instant bestseller, generating a multimillion-dollar franchise that included an eponymous movie (starring Natalie Wood and Tony Curtis); a nationally syndicated column, “Woman Alone,” written by Helen and aimed at single girls; a recorded album called Lessons in Love, which offered gems like “How to Talk to a Man in Bed;” a second book, Sex and the Office; and, of course, a magazine, the new Cosmopolitan, which Helen revamped from a staid general-interest title into a sexy single girl’s bible in 1965. The original Sex and the Single Girl also inspired countless imitations, among them a cookbook, Saucepans and the Single Girl (“Guaranteed to do more for the bachelor girl’s social life than long-lash mascara or a new discotheque dress,” it promised), Sex and the Single Man, and Sex and the Single Cat. “A publisher asked me to write a ‘me-too’ book -- about sex and the college girl,” Gloria Steinem told me in a recent interview. She declined, but future food critic Gael Greene took on the task of reporting from the real frontlines of the sexual revolution: the nation’s college campuses. Her book, Sex and the College Girl, hit shelves in 1964. Along with guidebooks for single girls, there were also stern warnings. In 1963, two young, unmarried women were murdered in their apartment on the Upper East Side; one had been a Newsweek copy girl, the other a teacher. The high-profile double homicide was dubbed the Career Girl Murders, and it terrified thousands of single, working girls across New York City. It also inspired a morose 125-page safety manual, Career Girl, Watch Your Step!, written by Max Wylie, the father of one of the victims, who cautioned the Sex and the Single Girl set about the dangers of dating and living alone in the big city. There’s no doubt that Helen Gurley Brown deserves credit for ushering in the sexual revolution and singles culture, but she was hardly the first woman to tackle writing a cheeky, charming guide for bachelorettes. Five decades earlier, in 1909, Helen Rowland, a noted satirist who penned biting aphorisms about the battle of the sexes for the New York World newspaper, collected her columns into an illustrated book of epigrams titled Reflections of a Bachelor Girl. (She began the column after the demise of the first of her three marriages.) Rowland followed up with more books, including A Guide to Men, published in 1922 -- the era of the flapper, with her short skirts, bobbed hair, loose morals, and penchant for cigarettes and petting parties. That year, Helen Gurley Brown was born in the small town of Green Forest, Ark. She grew up during the Great Depression, when wives and widows flooded the workforce, taking on jobs once meant for their husbands. Necessity paved the way for a new breed of woman who was capable of taking care of herself, and didn’t have to rely on a man -- and popular culture reflected her newfound independence. In the summer of 1936, when Helen was 14, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind topped the bestseller lists, as the nation fell in love with a flawed and fiercely determined heroine named Scarlett O’Hara. The same year, a Vogue editor named Marjorie Hillis published a self-help guide for single women titled Live Alone and Like It: A Guide for the Extra Woman. Who exactly was this Extra Woman, or E.W., as The New York Times later dubbed her? She was a woman who earned her own money and liked to spend it, and to reach her, Hillis’s publisher, Bobbs-Merrill, ventured far beyond the bookstore to places where single women congregated. “They sent their salesmen to department stores around the country with a multi-page memo that outlined how to pair quotations from the book with items from the store, like negligees and pajamas, compact furniture, and cosmetics,” says Joanna Scutts, who is currently working on a book about Hillis, The Extra Woman. “Hillis was resolutely a believer in material pleasure, beautiful objects, and the comforts of surrounding yourself with the things you loved.” (Three decades later, Helen Gurley Brown’s publicity team pitched Sex and the Single Girl to boutiques, singles resorts, and secretarial schools. In L.A., one bookstore’s window display featured the guide, opened to the chapter “How to Be Sexy,” paired with a black bikini.) In many ways, Hillis’s books and their offbeat promotion offered a valuable blueprint for Helen Gurley Brown, with one major exception: Live Alone and Like It spoke primarily to a savvy, city-dwelling reader, while Sex and the Single Girl addressed a far simpler creature. It was meant for the plain, small-town girl -- or “mouseburger,” to use Helen’s famous coinage -- who might have aspired to be more like Hillis’s sophisticated reader, or Hillis herself, only with a much more active sex life. (A minister’s daughter from Brooklyn, Hillis had pragmatic attitudes about sex but didn’t obsess over it, or men, the way Helen did.) Still, despite their differences, both authors recognized that the so-called problems faced by single women could actually be assets, even enviable luxuries. Long before Helen declared the working single woman as “the newest glamour girl of our time,” Hillis addressed her with a cut-the-bullshit approach. Might as well face it: “An extra woman is a problem...Extra women mean extra expense, extra dinner-partners, extra bridge opponents, and, all too often, extra sympathy,” she wryly observed in her first chapter, “Solitary Refinement.” And yet, the right attitude could turn it all around. Being a “live-aloner” had its perks: namely, total freedom. Without a man of the house to serve, a woman could tend to herself, breakfasting in bed, basking in her nightly beauty ritual, and best of all, she could have her own bathroom, “unquestionably one of Life’s Great Blessings,” Hillis wrote. Like a witty, worldly aunt, Hillis doled out bon mots on other subjects like decorating a modern apartment for one, mixing a classic Manhattan, and the importance of having a chic bedroom wardrobe. “We can think of nothing more depressing than going to bed in a washed-out four-year-old nightgown,” she noted, “nothing more bolstering to the morale than going to bed all fragrant with toilet-water and wearing a luscious pink satin nightgown, well-cut and trailing.” Hillis also leveled with the legions of single women about the pros and cons of sex outside of marriage, and having an affair. “Certainly, affairs should not even be thought of before you are thirty,” she wrote. “Once you have reached this age, if you will not hurt any third party and can take all that you will have to take -- take it silently, with dignity, with a little humor, and without any weeping or wailing or gnashing of teeth -- perhaps the experience will be worth it to you. Or perhaps it won’t.” In 1937, Hillis published Orchids on Your Budget, predating Helen Gurley Brown’s practical financial advice for single girls, followed by Corned Beef and Caviar for the Live-Aloner -- a recipe book that might have inspired Helen’s later Single Girl’s Cookbook -- and New York Fair or No Fair, a travel guide for women headed to the 1939 World’s Fair. (The same year, at the age of 49, Hillis shocked her readers by marrying Thomas H. Roulston, a wealthy widower who owned a chain of grocery stores, and moving to Long Island.) Most of these single-girl guides have gone the way of the chastity belt, but in the spirit of HGB, here are some of the wittiest and weirdest, along with some choice advice -- take it or leave it. Title: The Young Lady’s Friend (1880) Written By: Mrs. H.O. Ward, compiler of “Sensible Etiquette” Written For: Proper young ladies of America On Keeping Cool: “The less your mind dwells upon lovers and matrimony, the more agreeable and profitable will be your intercourse with gentlemen.” Title: Advice to Young Ladies from The London Journal of 1855 and 1862 (published in 1933) Selected By: R.D., from the weekly columns of “Notice to Correspondents” Written For: Proper young ladies of England On Coquetry: “Flirting is heartless and unprincipled; it leads to callousness in other respects, sullies the female mind, provokes retaliation, and is sure to end in heart-burnings, sorrows, and too frequently disgrace.” Title: Reflections of a Bachelor Girl (1909) Written By: Helen Rowland, columnist for the New York World who became known as “the female Bernard Shaw” Written For: Men and women wanting a good laugh On the Importance of Taking the Long View Before Taking a Vow: “Before marrying a man, ask yourself if you could love him if he lost his front hair, went without a collar, smoked an old pipe, and wore a ready-made suit; all of these things are likely to happen.” Title: Live Alone and Like It (1936) Written By: Marjorie Hillis, Vogue editor Written For: Single career girls in the city On Ladies and Liquor: “There is no simpler way of entertaining successfully than having a cocktail party, and there is no surer way of making a casual guest have a good time, than serving a highball. For breaking ice, mixing strangers, and increasing popularity, alcohol is still unrivaled.” Title: Orchids on Your Budget (1937) Written By: Marjorie Hillis Written For: Style-conscious live-aloners with limited funds On Fashion Sense: “A cheap dress worn with good accessories will fool more people than an expensive dress worn with cheap accessories." Title: Sex and the Single Girl (1962) Written By: Helen Gurley Brown Written For: Small-town girls thinking of moving to the big city for romance and recognition On How to Meet a Man: “Carry a controversial book at all times -- like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.” Title: Career Girl, Watch Your Step! (1964) Written By: Max Wylie, father of career-girl murder victim Janice Wylie Written For: The Sex and the Single Girl set On Bachelorettes in the Big City: “Don’t think of yourself as being safe. Think of yourself as being in danger all the time. This will make you wary. There is no better protection than an awareness of the dangers that might engulf you.” Title: Saucepans and the Single Girl (1965) Written By: Jinx Morgan and Judy Perry, college roommates-turned-cookbook authors Written For: Unmarried women looking for the fastest way to a man’s heart On Cooking for the Man in a Brooks Brothers Suit: “If you can cook without tripping over it, by all means wear your chicest hostess skirt. This is known as packaging the product.” Title: Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook (1969) Written By: Helen Gurley Brown Written For: Cosmo Girls On Ending the Affair: “When it comes to that dinner you know in your heart is to be the longed-for (on your part) last one, you must plan as wickedly as for a lovers’ feast. It shouldn’t be too difficult. Through careful observation of your companion through the months or years you’ll know everything he actively hates -- what gives him tummy cramps or causes him to break out. These are the foods you carefully prepare and feed him tonight.” Suggested dishes: Ceviche, Lamb Kidneys and Bacon, Refritos with Cheese.
“Why is Helen Gurley Brown trending?” a confused man in San Francisco recently tweeted. The answer is Lena Dunham, who has put HGB back in the spotlight again, with the publication of her memoir/self-help manual, Not That Kind of Girl. Anyone who has read or simply read about Dunham’s book probably knows that she was inspired by Brown’s 1982 bestseller, Having It All, which she bought for 65 cents at a thrift store in Ohio, thinking it would be “a decorative joke, something for my shelf of kitschy trophies.” As it happened, the book became an unlikely lifeline. A student at Oberlin at the time, Lena inhaled Helen’s recipes for success (and probably a fair amount of dust), with some reservations. “Most of her advice . . . is absolutely bananas,” Dunham writes in her introduction to Not That Kind of Girl. “But despite her demented theories, which jibe not even a little bit with my distinctly feminist upbringing, I appreciate the way Helen shares her own embarrassing, acne-ridden history in an attempt to say, Look, happiness and satisfaction can happen to anyone.” As someone who has been working on a book about Helen Gurley Brown for the past few years, I’m thrilled to see her name in the press again, and I think it’s great that Dunham is tipping her hat to Brown in her own memoir, which features a similar structure as Having It All (both books are divided into themed sections), a photo of the author in a classic ’80s power pose, and the line, “I am a girl with a keen interest in having it all.” I, too, own a copy of Having It All. When I read Dunham’s description of her thrift-store find, which came with a stranger’s inscription, I smiled in recognition . . . My pre-loved copy of the book came via Amazon, with a slight scent of mildew, dog-eared pages, and an ancient, discolored photograph that fell out as soon as I opened it. I do not know the mustached, mostly naked, overly tanned man pictured in the photo. I only know that whoever took the photo used too much flash and must have thought that her boyfriend/lover looked pretty damn sexy posing in a bathroom doorway wearing his tightest black banana-hammock with brown cowboy boots and a thin gold chain. As long as I own this copy of Having It All, he will continue to live among its pages, along with some of Helen Gurley Brown’s best and worst advice. They simply belong together. Not That Kind of Girl and Having It All belong together, too, in the relatively small canon of cheeky memoir/self-help-books-written-for-women-by-women. I understand why, in press interviews and public talks, Dunham keeps referencing Brown’s guide for attracting “love, success, sex, money, even if you’re starting with nothing.” Granted, Dunham hardly started with nothing: The daughter of artists, she grew up in Soho and attended the prestigious Saint Anne’s School in Brooklyn, before studying creative writing at Oberlin. Brown’s childhood was far less comfy. Born in the tiny town of Green Forest, Arkansas, she was just a girl when her father died in an elevator accident, forcing her grieving mother to uproot the family to Los Angeles, where Helen’s older sister was diagnosed with polio. I’m guessing that Dunham probably could afford not to work. Helen didn’t have a choice. She worked her way through 17 secretarial jobs before landing the career (and the husband) of her dreams. The story of Helen Gurley Brown is ultimately one about the power of will, and I understand why, as a college student, Dunham gravitated toward Helen’s belief that, as the Girls creator put it, “a powerful, confident, and yes, even sexy woman could be made, not born.” (See: Having It All, Chapter II, “How to ‘Mouseburger’ Your Way to the Top.”) But I still think that Lena is spotlighting the wrong book. The book that she should be talking about—that we all should be talking about, at least those of us who are talking about Lena Dunham and Helen Gurley Brown—is Sex and the Single Girl, which came out 20 years before Having It All, and changed the way people talked about sex (nice girls had premarital sex, too!), paving the way for shows like Sex and the City and Girls. (Props to Marisa Meltzer who made the connection at Yahoo! Style.) Life isn’t a college syllabus, and it’s not Dunham’s job to talk about a book that didn’t speak to her, or that she may not have read yet. But from a critical perspective, talking about Having It All without mentioning Sex and the Single Girl is kind of like talking about How to Save Your Own Life, Erica Jong’s follow-up to Fear of Flying, without mentioning Fear of Flying. Brown published Having It All when she was 60. She published Sex and the Single Girl when she was 40 and much closer to her experiences as a single woman working in advertising and dating around. She married the Hollywood producer David Brown at 37, considered spinster-age at the time. “I am not beautiful, or even pretty. I once had the world’s worst case of acne. I am not bosomy or brilliant. I grew up in a small town. I didn’t go to college. My family was, and is, desperately poor . . . But I don’t think it’s a miracle that I married my husband,” she began, before launching into her if-I-can-do-it-you-can-too spiel for how to lead a “rich, full life” as a single woman. “Here is what it doesn’t take. Great beauty,” she continued. “What you do have to do is work with the raw material you have, namely you, and never let up.” Sex and the Single Girl became an instant bestseller, with chapters giving women advice on where to meet men and how to have an affair from beginning to end. Yes, some of the advice was beyond ridiculous. Want to get a man’s attention? “Paint your car hot orange . . . or shocking pink.” Better yet: “Carry a controversial book at all times—like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital or Lady Chatterley’s Lover. It’s a perfectly simple way of saying, ‘I’m open to conversation,’ without having to start one.” But Brown also dispensed practical, often wise advice to her readers on how to start a career, how to save money, how to find an apartment, and how to embrace their own sexuality, flaws and all. “What is a sexy woman? Very simple. She is a woman who enjoys sex,” she wrote in a chapter called “How to Be Sexy.” “Being sexy means that you accept yourself as a woman . . . with all the functions of a woman . . . Being sexy means that you accept all the parts of your body as worthy and lovable.” What a concept! It’s hard to say what Helen Gurley Brown would have made of Lena Dunham and her nude scenes in Girls—in another chapter, she told readers that if they wanted to find a man, “Your figure can’t harbor an ounce of baby fat”—but their message of self-acceptance is similar. Like so many books that delve into the subject of sex and have been written by women, Brown’s book was a sensation and a shock. After reading the manuscript, her own mother was appalled and recommended putting off publication. Would her book get a lot of publicity? Sure, she said, but then again so would rape or murder!* In The San Francisco Examiner, one furious male reader called Helen Gurley Brown’s message in Sex and the Single Girl “a libel against womanhood” that threatened the chastity of the nation’s girls. “The breaking down of moral values . . . which this book indirectly advocates is leading Western civilization into a decline,” he fumed. Fifty years later, I read Sex and the Single Girl for the first time, at the age of 34. I know it was groundbreaking at the time, but the chapters about sex seemed tame; hardly shocking to someone who was still wearing skorts and Scrunchies when Madonna writhed on a bed in a cone bra and sang about being touched for the very first time. Admittedly, I had a similar reaction when I read Fear of Flying, a book that I now count among my favorites of all time. The “zipless fuck” doesn’t seem quite so scandalous when your mother keeps asking you if you’ve “gotten to that part yet.” Everyone said these books were about sex, and they were, but they are also about so much more. Sex and the Single Girl, Fear of Flying, Girls . . . as different as these works are in many ways, they are all about young women learning how to be alone with themselves, how to develop themselves, and how to take care of themselves; hard and often harrowing work that, preferably, happens before finding a partner. “When you accept yourself, with all your foibles, you will be able to accept other people too,” Brown wrote. “And you and they will be happier to be near you.” That’s the message that Dunham is trying to get across, too, and I think she succeeds. I’ve read more than a few reviews in which critics repeat some version of the line, “I read Lena Dunham’s new book. I learned nothing about Lena Dunham,” suggesting that she is putting on a persona that has little in common with the “real” Lena. Really? I felt I learned so much about her, but also about her family, her fears. I was particularly moved by Dunham’s portrait of her younger sister Grace, who used to crawl into her bed as a small child and had “the comforting, sleep-inducing properties of a hot-water bottle or a cat.” (When Dunham was writing her book, Grace was graduating college. “She’s emerged as a surprising, strange adult,” Lena says, sounding more like her mother than her sister.) Reading about her penchant for “bed-sharing” that continued into college, I remembered girls I knew in college who went to similar lengths to avoid being alone with themselves. Her experiences as a girl growing into a woman, despite being so different from mine, were also deeply familiar. I found her memoir to be personal and unflinching, funny and at times profound. But not everyone did. In The Guardian, book critic Hadley Freeman suggested that Dunham’s memoir be filed in a new genre of writing called “clit lit,” “books by young women writing about what is usually described as ‘all their flaws,’ which means everything that happens in their vaginas, from masturbation to menstruation, from sex to cystitis,” writes Freeman, who, at a certain point, began counting the number of times that Dunham uses the word “vagina.” She stopped when she reached 25.“ There’s sexual honesty, and then there’s just sticking your head up your vagina.” Maybe Freeman is just trying to be funny, I don’t know. I do know that Dunham uses the word “vagina” when describing the pain she felt after being raped by a guy she knew in college and before going to see her mother’s doctor, who, upon examining her, acknowledged that, “It must have been pretty rough.” Dunham also uses the words “vagina” and “uterus” liberally in a chapter recounting the severe stinging sensation in her crotch that sent her to her gynecologist, who diagnosed her with classic endometriosis, a disorder of the uterus that can lead to problems conceiving children. “I’m afraid that I’m infertile,” she says later in the book. Are women writers not supposed to use the word “vagina” when discussing such subjects? Or is the problem simply discussing the subjects themselves? As for the writer at New York’s “Vulture” who, weighing in on Hannah Horvath’s nakedness on Girls, said not to apply the word “brave” to Dunham because, as he put it, “she’s not a rape victim, she is a writer-actor-director who is exceptionally well compensated both financially and in the artist’s capital of choice—attention,” maybe you should read the chapter in Dunham’s book called “Barry.” (Also, forgetting Dunham for a second, how could you assume to know this kind of personal history about anyone? ) A lot has happened since 1962 when Sex and the Single Girl came out. Lena is able to write about subjects that Helen wasn’t, including what constitutes “rape.” (In an early draft of Sex and the Office*, Brown’s 1964 sequel to Sex and the Single Girl, she included a vignette called “Rape—More or Less,” recounting one woman’s experience of being attacked by a man she knew from work. The term “date rape” didn’t exist yet, and the story never made it to her final draft.) And yet, as two women who wrote memoir-manuals more than a half a century apart, they have been treated very similarly in the press. They weren’t honest enough. They were too honest—narcissistic navel-gazers. “I’m an unreliable narrator,” Lena writes, before recounting the story of her rape, an episode that she told differently earlier in the book. Like people, stories change. It doesn’t mean that they’re not true. Any memoir is an exercise in reconstructing memory. Every narrator is flawed. It’s not that Dunham is more flawed than anyone else. As was the case with Helen Gurley Brown, she is just more willing to look at her flaws, to write about them—and in the process, to rewrite herself. Like stories, people change. It doesn’t mean they’re “not real,” a popular accusation that critics have been hurling at Dunham as of late. “How much is Dunham inhabiting a persona—in effect wearing a mask made from her own face?” New Statesmen critic Helen Lewis asked recently. “Her whole life is a performance art piece where she plays a noxious brat with great skill . . . Reading this book, you realise that Lena Dunham has been playing ‘Lena Dunham’ for a long time. She is not real.” This just seems goofy to me. We all have our public/private faces. To some degree, we are all performers in the daily dramas of our own lives. We are all unreliable narrators of our own stories. We are all editors who choose which truths to reveal, and which to tweak or cut out altogether. I’ve been remembering a story about Helen’s teenage cousin, Lou, who visited her in the Pacific Palisades shortly after Sex and the Single Girl came out. When Lou stayed with Helen and David in 1962, copies of the book were still in boxes, stacked in the den. One day, she asked Helen for her own copy of Sex and the Single Girl. Lou stayed up all night reading. She was riveted. But she couldn’t help but wonder if Helen really believed everything she had written about life as a single girl—how it’s OK to sleep with guys before you get married, or have affairs with married men. “Do you really believe that?” Lou asked Helen the next morning. “Absolutely,” Helen said. “I believe the things I said. I just didn’t talk about how lonely it can be.” As Dunham continues her book tour, I hope someone raises the question that Helen’s cousin asked her all those years ago. Do you believe everything you wrote? Who knows how she would answer . . . But no one can accuse her of not talking about how lonely it can be. *From the Helen Gurley Brown Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College
Back when I was a reporter at Premiere magazine, I attended a screening of Pedro Almodóvar’s film, Talk to Her, and received one of his famous press notes packages. Almodóvar is known for conducting “auto entrevistas” (self interviews), in which he asks himself pointed and occasionally self-flattering questions about his latest movie. For example: Q: From now on, we’ll have to say that as well as being a good director of actresses you’re also a good director of actors. The leading characters in Talk To Her are two men and the actors who play them are splendid. A: I’m delighted it’s you who’s said that. I remember being amused by these schizophrenic conversations, in which Almodóvar played both interviewer and interviewee. (I imagined the chatty Spanish director in a mad dash, back and forth between two chairs, swapping roles.) At the time, the whole notion of a self interview seemed absurd to me, but now I see the benefits. As Almodóvar put it, “The reason I interview myself is for practical reasons. I say what I want to say and in the fastest way possible. In any case, a self interview is a written piece and writing is always done in solitude.” I frequently thought of Almodóvar while working on the reading group guide for the paperback version of my nonfiction book, The New Kids, chronicling the lives of students at a high school for recent immigrants. Initially, my publisher assigned a freelancer to write a first draft of the reading group guide, which features an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing book clubs and classes, and an author Q&A. While it was a solid start, I felt that many of the questions could go deeper. So I pulled out two chairs (metaphorically speaking, of course), and set about interviewing myself, figuring that no one knows my book better than I do. Reading group guides can have the feel of an author’s conversation with herself, which is either a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your opinion of the author. In a troubled publishing industry, they can also be enormously helpful in selling a book to general readers as well as more specialized groups, such as book clubs and classes. In my case, the readers’ guide for The New Kids has played an important part in securing adoptions of the book by colleges, universities, high schools, and communities organizing common reading programs. It also has had the cool effect of inspiring others to write their own guides for my book. Recently, a high school teacher in Colorado who taught the book in her classes shared with me her own discussion questions that she had come up with for a New Kids curriculum. After years of being claustrophobically alone with my book during the writing stage, it has been a joy to be able to talk about it with real, live humans who have actually read it. Since the hardcover publication, I’ve been doing events, readings, and visiting book groups. But I can’t be everywhere all the time, and the reading group guide is a way for me to initiate my ideal conversation about the book with readers who keep the discussion going. As a journalist who has interviewed everyone from Colin Powell to Kim Kardashian, I am used to asking other people questions, but turning the focus on myself was a strange and reflective process that made me reconsider the very notion of what makes a “good” question. It also made me curious about other authors’ experiences writing or revising their reading group guides. So, I decided to ask a few. Amy Sohn, the author of Prospect Park West and Motherland, a novel being published in August, is used to interviewing herself for reading group guides — she has been doing it for 15 years. “The best thing about interviewing yourself is that there are no ‘gotcha’ questions!” Sohn says. “The second-best thing is that you can be certain the interviewer read the book.” Of course, not all authors interview themselves. Robin Black, who wrote the short-story collection If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, shared a conversation she had with Karen Russell (Swamplandia) in her reading group guide. My friend Ransom Riggs answered his editor’s questions about his young adult novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, for his forthcoming paperback, which also will feature photos previewing the next installment of the series. And Melissa Walker, another YA author, worked with her publicity team to revise a readers’ guide that was sent out along with advance reading copies for her book Small Town Sinners, which deals with a teen growing up in an Evangelical community that is producing a Hell House. “I think the publicity department knew this book would create controversy, so they wanted to present questions that would ‘normalize’ me and also make the reader really think about the content,” Walker says. Some authors forego written questions altogether. Daniel Torday, who wrote The Sensualist, chose to provide suggestions for supplemental reading for his novella on a webpage created by his publisher. Frances Greenslade, who wrote the novel Shelter, also took the conversation online, providing a reading group guide on her website that includes a “soundtrack” of songs that appear in the book as well as discussion questions. “I call it ‘Questions I’d love to be asked if I visited your book club,’” she says. “I like the questions my publisher came up with for inside the book, but there are things I grappled with as I wrote the novel that I think make for interesting starting points for a discussion. It’s always the stuff that challenges us that is the richest vein for further exploration.” The authors I polled (myself included) represent several different genres, but we’ve all had a hand in creating our reading group guides for the purpose of enhancing the reading experience and inspiring discussion. Here is what we’ve gathered. Did you write or heavily revise your reading group guide, and if so why? Brooke Hauser: I asked my publisher to revise my reading group guide in part because I felt that some of the discussion prompts came off sounding like pop quiz questions instead of conversation starters. Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: I wrote the Topics for Discussion part of the guide — for the paperback—because my editor said we should start that way and they would make changes as necessary. As I recall though we just went with what I wrote. They also sent me an example from another collection they had published recently and that was actually a huge help especially with tone. To me, the questions I wrote don't sound like me at all—they sound like a readers' guide. Amy Sohn, author of Motherland: I revised my reading group guide for Motherland after it was sent to me for review, because I wanted it to reflect the questions I wanted the book to raise. Some of these questions were already addressed in the reading group guide. Others were absent. I also wanted to be careful not to give my readers any low-hanging fruit when it came to critiquing my work. I deleted questions I found facile. I edited preambles to questions that felt like misreads of my intention. Reader-reviewers can say whatever they want on bookselling sites, but when it came to the readers’ group guide I wanted to raise the level of the discourse. Understanding that I may not get the deep, thoughtful critical reviews I seek because book review space is shrinking, I saw the guide as a place to do something about it. To ask questions that engage literary tropes, metaphors, themes, doubling. Like most authors, I also heavily revise my catalog copy and synopsis and weigh in on what blurbs to use, because the copy ultimately reflects on me and I want to be sure it reads in a way that I'm happy with, a way that I can “own.” What are the components of your reading guide? Hauser: In addition to discussion questions and a Q&A, my reading guide features a section called Enhance Your Book Club or Class Discussion, in which I suggest activities for readers who want to engage more with the book’s subject matter. For instance, I suggest volunteering at a local office of the International Rescue Committee, an organization that resettles refugees across the country. I also recommend visiting Ellis Island and the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York. Sohn: Introduction, Topics for Question and Discussion, and Enhance Your Book Club. My book has a scene that takes place at a supper club or underground restaurant. One suggestion was for the book club to hold its own supper club. It’s fun to imagine some of the book groups taking these suggestions. Black: In my paperback, there are discussion questions, and there is also an interview of me done by Karen Russell. They make a good balance, I think. The interview Karen and I did is pretty craft heavy so for anyone who is interested in going a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of writing, it's there. The other questions, the ones I wrote, are more for readers who aren’t necessarily as interested in the writing process. There’s also a third element that isn’t in the book and doesn’t officially count, but I think is important: I heard so many times that book groups didn’t know how to discuss short stories that I put up a guide to doing that on my website. I know this isn't technically part of the book, but in some ways it has done more to make my collection seem approachable to book groups than anything else has. For any collections I write from now on, I will try to have something like that included as an appendix. Daniel Torday, author of The Sensualist: Instead of a traditional reading group guide, my publisher [Nouvella] and I decided it would be fun to do something to harness the great innovative powers of the Internet. To go with each copy of the book, we created a beautifully designed bookmark that has a QR code that brings you to a webpage with what we called “Supplementary Reading.” The book was heavily influenced by Dostoevsky and F. Scott Fitzgerald. So, I compiled some quotations from The Brothers Karamozov that directly influenced my writing — the book’s main character is named after Dmitri Karamozov, and the book takes its title from a chapter in The Brothers Karamozov, called “The Sensualists.” We included excerpts from those chapters, some stuff from André Gide’s great essay on Dostoyevsky, and something from David Foster Wallace’s famous essay on Dostoevsky. How did you come up with your questions and topics for discussion? Did you cull any from events, readings, or book club discussions in which you participated? Hauser: I’ve been asked some great questions about my book by readers, especially book club members who have invited me to participate in their discussions in person or via an email interview. So, when it came time to write my reading guide, I included a few of their best questions in an extended guide that I posted online. One of my favorite questions was about why most of the “main characters” in the book were students who either lived alone or had little parental guidance. That connection hadn’t occurred to me before a reader pointed it out. Sohn: My editor drafted the initial questions, and I added a few that were more thematic. The questions didn’t gel with questions I have been asked at readings because people who attend my readings ask incredibly personal questions: “Do you like being a mother?” or else want to know about how to get their own books published or get an agent. Frances Greenslade, author of Shelter: From visiting book clubs, I was pleasantly surprised to find that readers view the characters in Shelter very much as real people. I see them this way, too. So, I like to ask who they identify with most and why. Readers are quite divided on their sympathy for the mother in Shelter, for example. It’s interesting to explore those conflicting views of her. Black: I stole a few questions from interviews, just recasting them. And then I also threw in a few things that no one had ever asked me but that I wished they had. I also looked for common elements between the stories so the book could be discussed as a whole; and actually a couple of the ones I found surprised me—like that it’s a book about loss but almost nobody cries. When I realized that, I was curious myself about what other ways I had represented grief if there are so few tears shed—so I put the question in. What do you think makes a thought-provoking prompt? Did you ever find it strange interviewing yourself, if in fact you did? Hauser: My book is divided into three parts, loosely reflecting the arc of the students’ journeys as they adapt to life in this country: Passages, Between Worlds, and Almost American. At the eleventh hour, I panicked about the title “Almost American,” worrying it could imply the students were somehow “less than,” when really I meant that becoming American is in and of itself a journey (a legal journey or a psychological one, for instance). I thought about changing the title, but my editor convinced me not to, and I’m glad I listened, because it led to a great question: “What does it mean to be almost American? What does ‘being American’ mean to you?” Greenslade: I think the most thought-provoking questions come from comparisons with our own experience. I hope that reading broadens my view of the world and makes me look at my own firm convictions a bit differently. I like a book to unsettle me a little, so questions that peer into that unsettled feeling interest me. Questions about the characters’ choices and motivations usually lead to good discussions. Sohn: Every writer has her ideal review. This doesn't mean a rave. It means a review that looks at what the author was trying to accomplish and tries to weigh how she succeeded. I got a mixed review of my first novel, Run Catch Kiss, that nonetheless pleased me because it seemed to look at my intention: Did the book work as generation-specific satire? To me, a thought-provoking question is one that addresses the author’s goals and the subtext of the novel but doesn’t weigh in on the morality of the characters. I don’t find “Did you like or didn’t you like ___ character?” questions to be very insightful as a reader myself, though they make for lively discussions in book groups. I prefer “What is the author trying to say about _____?” or “How does ___ theme play out in the novel?” or “Where do you see the characters going at the end?” Black: I think thought-provoking questions are ones that help readers feel some creative ownership in the work. That means that the best questions have no definitive answers. You aren’t testing the readers’ knowledge of the work, you’re trying to get them engaged in discussion—which often means debate. So, I tried to look for points of ambiguity in my stories and direct the readers toward those. I didn’t exactly see it as interviewing myself. I saw it as a way of helping other people find a creative path into the work. That’s how fiction stays alive once it’s written. By having other people continue to wrestle with it, question it, as they read. I tried to craft questions with that in mind. Torday: The idea [of providing a reading syllabus online] was that presenting readers with material for book group discussion would be a more exciting prompt than being too heavy-handed in asking questions directly. The most exciting material we unearthed was a letter from Fitzgerald to his daughter, imploring her to read The Brothers Karamazov, which he called the “masculine influence” on The Great Gatsby. Here I had written a book in which the characters read Gatsby and then literally visit the site of a mansion in Baltimore where Fitzgerald and Zelda lived for years. And one of those characters believed himself to basically be a character out of a Dostoevsky novel. So, in a way, I guess the question in a traditional readers’ guide would’ve been just to point these facts out and say something like, “Isn't that cool?” or “I don't know what to make of that—what the hell do you make of that?” It seemed more fun, and apt, to simply present the material and let it do the work. Do you have any advice or tips for other authors writing their own reading guides? Hauser: One thing I learned through the process of revising my reading group guide is the importance of knowing your audience. In addition to book clubs, students at the graduate, college, and high school levels have read The New Kids. I tried to keep different age demographics in mind while coming up with prompts and questions. Black: Try to craft questions for which there are no definitive answers. Try to engage the reader in an imaginative process. And don’t forget that reading fiction has this oddly social aspect to it. Readers form relationships with characters, so it makes sense to have a question or two that recognizes that attachment, questions along the lines of: “What advice would you have given to so-and-so?” or “With which character would you most want have lunch? Why?” It can sound a little hokey, I guess, but I think it’s important to have questions to which readers with different levels of sophistication can relate. Sohn: Don’t talk down to your readers. Assume they read a lot and can engage with fiction. Think about what might provoke discussion but also think about what might provoke internal thought. Books move people. The readers’ guide should help readers to think and feel more deeply about the book. Greenslade: Questions should be open-ended, not easy to answer with a simple yes or no. Go with problems that engaged you as you wrote and turn them into questions. Try not to sound too much like a literature class. Image via Wikimedia Commons
“Why do we read?” That was the journal prompt given one day to seniors at the International High School at Prospect Heights, a Brooklyn public school that teaches English to newly arrived immigrants and refugees from around the world. I spent a year at the school reporting my first book, The New Kids. During that time I heard many, many journal prompts, but this one made a lasting impression, in part because of one student’s answer. “We read to survive in the world,” wrote Hasanatu, who had grown up in Sierra Leone during the war, “because when we know how to read, we can have gob.” Hasanatu had learned how to read only recently, around the same time that she learned how to write. Sometimes she read for fun — she liked Superfudge by Judy Blume — but reading had a more practical purpose, too. She read to learn English, to sharpen her language and communication skills, to propel her forward toward college, and, yes, toward a good job. She also read to find answers to pressing questions. For instance, she wanted to know why it seemed that only African Muslims practice female circumcision? She spent days in the library investigating. For me, the question “What are you reading” inevitably leads to the question, “Why do we read?” This year, I’ve been reading mostly for entertainment and escape — more like I used to read as a kid. In past years, I’ve found myself reading books on a theme, usually related to whatever I’m working on at the moment. Before writing The New Kids, I read and revisited books about the immigrant/outsider experience: What Is the What and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, Outcasts United by Warren St. John, and Call It Sleep by Henry Roth. (I wrote about a few of those books here.) If I had known about The Gangster We Are All Looking For, Lê Thi Diem Thúy’s slim and elegant novel about a young girl who washes ashore in San Diego after fleeing Vietnam with her father by boat, I would have read it before writing my own book. In hindsight, I’m glad I didn’t know about it — I was able to read it without taking endless mental notes. I was pleased to discover that the author has a connection to western Massachusetts (where I recently moved with my husband), also home to Tracy Kidder, whose book Home Town gave me a glimpse into the inner workings of Northampton. Leaving New York City helped rekindle my interest in books about my former home, which I sometimes miss. I loved Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad, not just for its memorable characters and pervasive sense of nostalgia, but for Egan’s wonderful inventiveness with language. I also ate up Amy Sohn’s bitchy Prospect Park West — especially the parts where she imagines dialogue for the “character” of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who works at the Park Slope Food Coop. On the subject of Park Slope, I finally got to read the works of some of my friends from the neighborhood’s own Brooklyn Writers Space. Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is a cookbook written as a collection of pithy essays, in the tradition of M.F.K. Fisher’s How to Cook a Wolf. Bryan Charles’ memoir, There’s a Road to Everywhere Except Where You Came From, is about his first few years living in New York City, where he worked in a cubicle on the seventieth floor of the World Trade Center up until and on the day of 9/11. Michael Chabon described the book as “a sneakily disturbing, disarmingly profound, casually devastating memoir, taut and adept, that cracked me up even at its saddest moments.” I think he nailed it. Speaking of Chabon, I finally read Wonder Boys, which has one of the best last lines of any book that I can remember. I also read Emma Donoghue’s Room, which ruined a recent family weekend vacation (I wouldn’t talk to anyone until I finished), and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, another creepy book. This one is a young-adult novel — featuring some beautifully haunting vintage photos — about an abandoned orphanage filled with some very weird kids. Last but not least, I revisited a few old favorites, including Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove, the first western I ever read, and Black Hole, the first graphic novel I ever read. The former is an epic adventure about a couple of aging Texas cowboys who embark on a perilous journey to settle amid the wilderness of Montana. The latter is a grotesque modern fable about a bunch of teenagers in 1970s Seattle, where a sexually transmitted “bug” is causing some horrific mutations among the locals. Two titles you wouldn’t find side-by-side on most bookshelves, but I see a connection. As Hasanatu said, we read to survive in the world, but sometimes we just like reading about survival. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.