Confessions of a book club outcast

I'm literate and articulate, and I make delicious finger food. But I can't get into the good book clubs because I'm a guy.

By Peter Flax

Published March 26, 2002 10:33PM (EST)

Book clubs are like powder rooms. They sound great, only I've never been in one.

I've heard some swank establishments have powder rooms with plush seating, fresh-cut flowers, full-length mirrors and flattering lighting. Meanwhile, I'm standing in line for the urinal, making sure I keep my eyes to myself and my mouth shut. Truth be told, I'd like a little tulip action in the lavatory. And I'd also like to join a book group.

Fat chance. Every time I've tried to score a seat in a group, I've been blackballed. One of my best friends stared me and my request right in the eyes and burst out laughing. Another acquaintance invited me to join her group, which was suffering from attrition and malaise. I seemed like the perfect solution -- until she learned that the club was no-man's land, literally. But the worst was the time my candidacy made it all the way to a full-group discussion and vote. I lost by a single nay. "It was so close," said one of my supporters. "I think you would have gotten in if you were gay."

I'm learning to live with rejection.

Fact is, my credentials are rock-solid. I'm literate, articulate and able to turn out uncommonly delicious finger food. I was an English major back in the day, the lone wolf in a seminar classes reexamining classic literature through a feminist lens. More recently, I worked as an editor at a women's health magazine. Trust me, I know more about urinary tract infections than you do. Plus, I've been in and out of love, I've got body issues and I dug "Remains of the Day."

Oh, and I promise I'll read the book. I've got my sources; they tell me that some women chronically fail to complete the reading, while others are more eager to talk about Tony Soprano than Toni Morrison. And you gotta problem with me?

I'm sure there's an all-man book group out there, but I don't think it's for me. I can only imagine the reading list. Steven Ambrose, "The Silmarillion" and plenty of Elmore Leonard. Count me out.

No, I'm sure what I want -- and can't have. On a recent holiday getaway, I realized half the women on the beach were nose-down in a copy of "The Corrections." And two weeks later, I imagined, they'd all be sitting on a comfy couch with some bookish friends, swirling a herbaceous glass of sauvignon blanc, discussing that quirky Lambert clan and laughing about how Enid reminds them of Mom. Meantime, I'm all alone wading through "Underworld," wondering if I'll ever have a conversation about DeLillo's curious syntax or the way history can shape the littlest moments of our lives. It's doubtful.

I know what's going on in all these book clubs. And I like it. You read a book a month. You talk about the characters, the themes, the writing -- and how it all makes you think about your world, your experiences, your relationships. Sometimes the discussion is incisively literary; other times it wanders or becomes deeply personal. You sink your fork into a rich slab of chocolate cake and offer up something honest.

And I, apparently, could ruin the whole thing.

But why? In the name of journalism, I called upon my women friends for some answers. Here's what I found: All of them are in women-only book groups, all profess to have an open mind about men joining, yet all can recite a litany of problems guys would drag into the group. The top concern is that male interlopers would irrevocably change the dynamic, causing women to be less honest and comfortable discussing personal matters. Some worry that men would be domineering, flirty or dismissive. Others say they would destroy a cherished and rare opportunity for women to escape a male-dominated world. Plus, men just don't get "Ally McBeal."

Ouch. So tell me how you really feel.

Frankly, these are damn good reasons to be concerned. There's no doubt that injecting a little testosterone into an evening has its consequences. But then again, so can inviting a lesbian, a divorcee, a Muslim or a Republican into your living room. They can tip the balance of the conversation in an unexpected direction or challenge your comfort zone. They can also make things more interesting.

All I ask is that women be true to their feelings. If you'll only be happy and comfortable in a women-only group, don't let my carping slow you down. Read your Kingsolver and your Allende in gendered peace. But there must be some women out there who are willing to take the leap and invite a man into their midst. Or so I hope. Until that lucky day, I'll just keep trying and waiting. And in the meantime, I'll set out some tulips in my bathroom.

Peter Flax

Freelance writer Peter Flax lives in Charleston, SC. His work has appeared in Men's Journal, Sports Illustrated Women, and San Francisco magazine.

MORE FROM Peter Flax

Related Topics ------------------------------------------