How to shut down discussion in a reading group

Dear Fellow Readers,

An experience I had the other night in my small reading group has caused me to think about how to read and respond to literary fiction without shutting down discussion. One of our fellow readers tends to immediately jump in and express her opinions before there’s an opportunity to explore a book’s many themes and characters. In this case, she said the book made her feel claustrophobic and it was difficult for her to finish it.

What can you say after a statement like that? I probed a little, asking what it was that made her feel claustrophobic, wondering if it was something in herself she was reacting too and not just the book. As Lionel Trilling once said, novels can read us as much as we read them. I forget what my fellow reader said, but the damage had been done. Her strong reaction dampened further comments. It’s natural to dislike certain characters just as we do people we run into in actual life. But as readers, don’t we want to understand what it is about the character/person we dislike? What psychological elements are at play in this situation? It’s an opportunity for self-reflection and self-knowledge, one of the main reasons I read.

We were discussing Italian author Andrea Canobbio’s prize-winning novel, Three Light-Years. The title suggests that the narrative will move at a lightning pace, but it doesn’t. It’s a sedate stroll through the lives of its three main characters, Cecilia, her sister Sylvia, and Claudio. The narrator, another character, has a minor role as the son of this triad, and the narrative is his attempt to piece together what had led to his birth.

The author/narrator does a masterful job of exploring the emotional dynamics (or lack of them) that brought these three people together, and as a reader I felt it deeply when Cecilia and Claudio failed to connect more fully. Therefore, I had hoped my fellow readers and I could have a serious exploration of the psychological dynamics operating between these two characters, as well as the cultural pressures they lived under. Both had been married previously. Both were still bound in multiple ways to their pasts. It seemed like a rich opportunity to learn something both about Italian culture, if one can generalize that much, and also about the interior lives of these three characters. I also had hoped we could discuss the work’s structure, images, and more.

When it comes to reading and responding to literary works, I believe it’s important to take the inductive approach, saving our judgments until we’ve not only finished reading the book but also until after we’ve been engaged in a thorough discussion of it. Otherwise we are prejudging and jumping to unwarranted conclusions. We also are missing out on the kind insights other group members can bring to the conversation.

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