Reports, Five Repertoires, One Repertoire Matrix: Talking about
contemporary reading group experiences
How can we talk about the differences
within and about reading groups? The purpose of our research project
is to devise a course for reading group facilitators. That is why we
studied the ways into which researchers talk about contemporary
reading groups meeting in their free time and in physical
environments. First, we have been able to reconstruct five different
repertoires: the Historical, the Social, the Cultural, the
Transformative, and the Narrative. We argue that the differences in
interpretation show the evolution in reading groups and that each
repertoire can be linked to a phase of Turner’s process. Finally, we
have constructed a Repertoire Matrix through which reading group
readers and facilitators can frame different reading group practices
and which offers a vocabulary to discuss diversification within the
network of reading groups.
reading groups, discursive psychology, rhetorical analysis,
At the Beyond the Book conference
(University of Birmingham, 2007), we were treated to a variety of
debates on reading groups offering different definitions. As it is
the aim of our research to develop a course for reading group
facilitators, we set out to make these differences more explicit.
The following questions structure our research:
Which characteristics do researchers
focus on to define the reading group experience?
Which features give rise to
contrasting research findings?
How can we understand these
Which vocabulary do we need to make
sense of these differences?
We devised a research methodology
starting from discourse analysis based on the interpretive
repertoires theory (Potter & Wetherell, 1995). We looked for
recurring key terms to pinpoint the defining characteristics and
dichotomies to circumscribe the opposing features. We proceeded to
structure these into categories that equate the components of the
minimal story: Agent, Act, Agency, Scene and Purpose
(Bruner, 1986; 2004). Finally, we applied the rhetorical
analysis method of the Dramatist Pentad (Burke, 1945) to create a
rhetorical construct that allows us both to differentiate as well as
to clarify the link between the different repertoires. Thus we came
up with five repertoires: the Historical, the Social, the Cultural,
the Transformative, and the Narrative.
First, we reconstruct the Historical
vocabulary, which hinges on the opposition between the right reading
practices at universities done by male academics as a professional
activity versus the ‘light’ reading at home done by the disqualified
solitary female reader in her leisure time. In this discourse, the
arguments concerning place and time initiate the debate, making
Scene the Ancestral Principle within this repertoire.
Next, we argue that the essence of the
contemporary reading group has to be understood through the
imbalance between Scene on the one hand and Act, Agency,
Agent, and Purpose on the other. Indeed, reading groups
convene most often at home, but they respectively defy the solitary
reading practice, the literary reading mode, the existing reader’s
identities, and the readers’ intention of creating their own story.
Each mismatch is translated into a repertoire, which can be located
within a Repertoire Matrix that functions as a lens through which we
can formulate our thoughts about the reading group.
Thus, the Social discourse assembles the
points of view related to the importance of convening as readers.
This Social repertoire starts from the Principle Act. The
discussion featuring the arguments for and against the right reading
mode, the right book, and the proper analyses are clustered within
the Cultural repertoire, foregrounding the Principle Agency.
All contentions concerning effect on the reader’s identity are
allocated to the Principle Agent, from which the
Transformative vocabulary is derived. And finally we have developed
a Narrative repertoire, which looks at how readers narrate the self.
The Principle Purpose sets off this discourse.
The relationship between the five
repertoires exemplifies Turner’s liminal process, the Historical
Repertoire representing the canonical state that is breached by the
Social Repertoire. The Cultural Repertoire delineates the crisis,
and the Transformative and Narrative Repertoires sketch the creation
of a new legitimacy. The genre of the narrative about these
repertoires corresponds to the structure of the Bildungsroman.
Research Design: Scope, Method and
We have limited this study to analyses
of contemporary women’s reading groups meeting in physical spaces as
a leisure activity. This leaves us with six academic texts to be
The research reports were all published within a period of six
years, from Devlin-Glass in 2001 to Burwell in 2007, with 2003 as
To define the ongoing debate, we mapped
the researchers to their field of expertise, situating reading group
research both within the same tradition of the humanities as well as
between a variety of disciplines such as arts, sociology, and
communication, with a preference for qualitative — more specific
focus groups, interviews and questionnaires — research methods.
Geographically. the research community is situated in the USA,
Australia, Canada, and the UK.
We have devised a research methodology
combining discourse analysis based on the interpretive repertoires
theory (Potter & Wetherell, 1995) with narrative inquiry (Bruner,
1986; 2004) and rhetorical analysis following the principles
of the Dramatist Pentad (Burke, 1945). First, we will briefly
explain why we combine these methods, then we will discuss each of
them separately, and finally we will put forward how we have
proceeded with our analysis.
Discursive psychology, narrative
inquiry, and rhetorical analysis all start from language as
meaning-making device. They construct a concept of meaning that is
layered. Discursive psychology states that people rely on previous
registers; that there are dominant repertoires and that people
choose from different discourses to formulate their way of talking
about reality. Narrative inquiry asserts that people create their
stories based on the existing tales within their culture, and
Burke’s rhetorical analysis addresses the need of people to identify
with existing vocabularies. So we want to discern the layers within
the definition of “the reading group” and increase the level of
detail used in the definition. How do we talk about reading groups?
Next, we add more information by asking how we construct stories
about them. And finally we inquire how one persuades a reading group
member to adopt or change this narrative according to lines of
similarity and difference.
We see these approaches as complementary
methods of analysis, as is implied by Potter and Wetherell, who
define rhetoric as “the use of discourse to persuasive effect”
(1987, p. 187). Potter and Wetherell (1987) introduced the concept
of an “interpretive repertoire”: “basically a lexicon or register of
terms and metaphors drawn upon to characterize and evaluate actions
and events” (p. 138). Interpretive repertoires are ways to talk
about reality; they don’t describe reality as such but create
versions of it depending on the context of the speaker. These
versions, however, are not idiosyncratic, because people choose from
the discourses that are already available to them. Speakers most
often combine different repertoires to construct an account of a
particular phenomenon and can vary their selection according to the
situation. Within this paper we will discuss five repertoires,
starting from the dominant Historical Repertoire to the countering
Social, Cultural, Transformative and Narrative Repertoires.
According to both Burke (1945) and
Bruner (2004), the minimal story structure consists of Agent,
Act, Agency, Scene, Purpose and drama, which is caused by a
‘mismatch between two or more of the five constituents’ (Bruner,
2004, p. 697). Bruner quotes Turner to specify “trouble”: “an
initial canonical state is breached, redress is attempted which, if
it fails, leads to crisis; crisis, if unresolved, leads eventually
to a new legitimate order” (Turner, 1982, cited in Bruner, 2004, p.
697). Troubles are also “individual embodiments of deeper cultural
crises” (Bruner, 2004, p. 697).
Bruner relies on Rorty’s work to
distinguish different levels of Agency: how much the Agent
owns or forms his own experience. Agents can be defined as a
mere function within a plot without, or unaffected by, experiences
of their own, or as persons who are defined by their roles in
society: “selves who must compete for their roles in order to earn
their rights” or “individuals” who “transcend,” “resist,” or “rip
off.” Character development takes place on two levels: the landscape
of consciousness and the landscape of action.
In A Grammar of Motives
(1945), rhetorician Kenneth Burke developed The Dramatist Pentad.
This method invites us to analyse how we “talk about experience”
(Burke, 1945, p. 317). As such, it does not deal with the experience
itself but creates a vocabulary to communicate about it. A
vocabulary equates with the minimal structure of a story, which
consists of five basic constituents or Principles. These five key
components answer the following questions: who (Agent), when
and where (Scene), how and by what means (Agency),
what (Act), and why (Purpose).
An Agent can be a character or
“motivational properties” such as “drives,” “instincts,” “states of
mind” and collective words for agent, such as nation, group” (Burke,
1945, p. 20). An Act is defined synonymously with plot, as
“conscious or purposive motion” (p. 14) and as motivated by novelty.
Agency covers means, instruments, tools, power, authority,
and medium. Purpose deals with intention, goals, or “the
Aristotelian ‘happiness’” (p. 292), and Scene locates the
action in time and place. Later in his analysis, Burke devised a
sixth principle, Attitude, “which is not outright an Act,
but an incipient or arrested Act, a state of mind, the
property of an agent”
(p. 460). A fully
rounded vocabulary—a complete thought—places motives in all five
principles of the Pentad.
Burkeian drama is generated by an
imbalance in the ratio between the Principles—Agent does not
fit Scene, for instance—or by ambiguity created by the
possibility of locating motives in more than one Principle: either
within the Agent (intrinsic) or within the Scene
(extrinsic), or within Agency or Purpose. Burke sees
ambiguities as places where transformations take place.
How does it work? One “looks for key
terms, one seeks to decide which terms are ancestral and which
derivative; and one expects to find terms possessing ambiguities
that will bridge the gulf between other terms or otherwise serve as
developmental functions” (Burke, 1945, p. 402). Patterns of merger
or homogeneity (“a part of”), on the one hand, and of division,
heterogeneity, “apart from” (p. 406) and their bridging principle of
continuity that “partakes somewhat of both” (p. 404), on the other,
We set out to develop a basic repertoire
clustering the recurring dichotomies around key terms. We then
categorized these fields under the components of the minimal story
structure. We used the imbalances and ambiguities to create a new
layer of meaning.
Hartley offered the following minimal
definition of a reading group: “a group of people who meet on a
regular basis to discuss books” (Hartley 2003: 2). She situated it
in a neighbourhood and home context (80% meet at somebody’s home).
We pinpointed the following key terms
within the chosen research reports: “reader,” “home,” “reading
mode,” “purpose,” “discussion mode,” “book,” “book choice,” and
“book meeting.” We proceeded to look for dichotomies such as
male-female, academy-home, literary-personal, education-pleasure,
book-focused versus personal narratives, classics versus reading
group book, cultural-personal, solitary-group, and
historical-contemporary. Next, we clustered all ideas that related
to these pairs.
In the next phase we allocated these
fields to the components of the minimal narrative structure. Our
basic proposition equates home and historical time with Scene;
readers and their communities with Agents; and books, book
choice, and reading mode with Agency. The Act
describes the different patterns through which readers, books,
reading experiences, discussions, and life narratives are brought
together. Finally, the Purpose deals with the discussion
Table 1. The Principles of Reading
classics–reading group book
versus personal narratives
We then proceeded to look for imbalances
between the Principles, which we considered as a new variation of
the reading group experience. Each time we focused on which motives
started the discussion, thus labelling the Ancestral Principle
within the repertoire.
Finally we formulated for each of these
discussions metaphors, as to ‘define, or determine a
thing, is to mark its boundaries, hence to use terms that possess,
implicitly at least, contextual reference’ (Burke 1945: 24).
As ‘each group is different and relishes
that difference’ (Hartley 2003: 23), a diversity caused by ‘who is
in them and what they read’ (Hartley 2003: 23), we set out to
develop a way of talking about these distinctions.
However, in this study we propose to
define the dissimilarities among reading groups not on reader’s
identity and reading mode but on the Principle that is at the heart
of the discussion. As a consequence, we foreground the different
ways in which we talk about a reading group instead of the different
kinds of reading groups.
Repertoires on Reading Groups
We have developed a Repertoire Matrix
that explains the nascence of the reading group over time. One can
discern phases within this process following Turner’s analysis of
transformations. The Historical Repertoire depicts the canonical
state within the reading community. The Social Repertoire portrays
the breach within this picture. The Cultural Repertoire outlines the
failed attempts to restore the initial state and the ensuing crisis.
The new legitimate order is sketched within the Transformative and
Narrative Repertoire. We have structured our findings following the
narrative mode using the forma of the Bildungsroman
and present this evolution as linear, although the constellation of
the Repertoires does not belong to the scope of our research. We
have found one clear indication that the Social Repertoire has to
precede the Transformative: trust is fundamental to allow for
“tentative and exploratory openness — toward new ideas, about one’s
feelings” (Long, 2003, p. 187). However, further research is needed
on this aspect. Throughout the analysis we will use the Repertoire
Matrix both as a summary as well as a description of the development
of our analysis.
Table 2. Repertoire Matrix
analytic morally and intellectually
‘interruptible’, ‘ephemeral and ‘circumscribed by the ties
of personal relationships’
Intellectual moral elevation; production of High Culture
‘Receptive’ and self-induced’; pleasure;
Solitary – reading
versus Institute Literature
reading group book
readers – cultural valuators
Define a new
group and outside world
Inner versus outer
This discourse starts from the
dichotomies past-contemporary and “withdrawn from the world’ (Long,
2003, p. 2)-‘domestic’ (Long, 2003, p. 4). It covers the debate
starting from the differences between representations of readers and
reading groups over time — from early Christian art up until the
twenty-first century — and within place — the sacred “scholarly
study” or the secular, “domestic,” “private sphere of leisure”
(Long, 2003, p. 4) As such, Scene functions as the Ancestral
Principle in this repertoire.
This leads to disputes situated in the
Principle Agent. It opposes the historical reader as
“solitary” (Long, 2003, p. 2) to the contemporary reader as social.
It also differentiates between the serious male reader/writer who
“transcends the world” and the “sensuous, frilled, and frivolous”
female reader “positioned in the mundane” (Long, 2003, p. 5). Female
readers, also, are characterised on the one hand as “spinsters” who
prefer reading to participating in “adult heterosexuality” and
“family living” or, on the other, as avid readers who “neglect their
family responsibilities and fritter away time” (Long, 2003, p. 13).
Another debate within this narrative is
that between the visible white upper-class bourgeois reader and the
other, invisible classes and races of readers (Long, 2003, p. 6).
Within the Principle Agency, the
debate centres on limited versus proliferated reading; on reading
versus sociability and participation in an active life (Long. 2003.
p. 2); on “erudite, analytic, (…) morally and intellectually” (p. 3)
versus “interruptible”; on “ephemeral” and “circumscribed by the
ties of personal relationships” (p. 5); on tomes versus “notes,”
“letters,” and “tiny books”; on “serious” versus “escapist” modes of
reading, which is characterised as “less contemplative,”
“langourous, narcissistically absorbed in imaginative literature
that helps them while away the hours” (p. 6). Reading letters
mediates between the “interior life” and “the outer world” (Long,
2003, p. 5).
The Act can be seen as the
opposition of the being-nothing pair, foregrounding the unified
scholarly practice against the multitude of female reading modes.
Thus it can be linked to the fabula of “obedience and authority”
that women’s reading, “both as activity and as content (fiction,
stereotypically romance fiction), threatens because it represents
escape and holds forth at least the possibility of subverting the
structures that discipline our lives” (Long, 2003, p. 13). As a
consequence, women’s reading needs “surveillance.”
The disparity between reading for
intellectual and moral elevation versus reading for “receptive” and
“self-induced” pleasure, for “compensatory or predictable
satisfactions” (Long 2003, p. 13) is allocated to the Principle
Purpose. The contrast between “the production and dissemination
of serious and high culture” provided by authoritative men and the
“consumption and ‘creation’ of ephemeral or questionable culture”
(Long, 2003, p. 7) associated with privileged women is situated
here, as well: men read to write books, and women write letters.
Imbalances and ambiguities
The Historical Repertoire functions as
the dominant discourse, as the contemporary narratives on reading
groups defy its components. We use the imbalances Scene-Act,
Scene-Agency, Scene-Agent, and Scene-Purpose to
develop the various ways one can talk about a reading group.
Table 3. Imbalances and Ambiguities
within the Historical Repertoire
at home (Scene) but we meet (Act). Therefore,
we are not
we don’t read
for pleasure but to bond (Agency);
we don’t read
only; we also discuss (Purpose).
at home (Scene) but our reading mode is different
we have to be
able to deal with ambiguity (Agent);
we have to
negotiate, to select, to conflict, to resist (Act);
we have to
define a new literary culture (Purpose).
at home (Scene), but we want to change (Agent).
life choices and identities (Act);
we play, leap,
compare, relate to fiction and life narratives as other
possible lives (Agency);
new possibilities of being (Purpose).
at home (Scene), but we narrate the self (Purpose).
we want to
we become the
The Social Repertoire is based on the
imbalance between Scene-Act. We experienced some difficulties
in allocating “to discuss” to a Principle. This ambiguity indicates
a first level of transformation. Whereas the function of reading,
namely intellectual and moral elevation versus passing time in a
pleasurable way, coincided with the Purpose in the Historical
Repertoire, this is no longer true for the reading group reader. The
Purpose within the Social Repertoire is to discuss, and from
the Cultural Repertoire onward “to discuss” has evolved into the
Principle Act. Thus, “to discuss” functions as a
developmental term as we move from wanting to discuss (Social
Repertoire), to discussion respecting differences (Cultural
Repertoire), to a playful mode of discussion reaching consensus
(Transformative Repertoire), to the creation of narratives
The Ancestral Principle in the Cultural
vocabulary is Agency, as the debate focuses on different
reading practices and their legitimacy. The Scene-Agent
debate is reconstrued within the Transformative Repertoire: the
Agent is not receptive but wants to change. And finally the
question of whether the reading group reader wants to do more than
write letters is addressed in the Narrative Repertoire initiated by
Social Repertoire: Act
The Ancestral Principle within this
vocabulary is Act, linking readers to books and their reading
pleasures. As such, reading groups are vital for readers because
most “readers need the support of talk with other readers, the
participation in a social milieu in which books are ‘in the air’”
(Long, 2003, p. 10). So, reading group readers meet with books,
other readers, and fictional characters.
The ensuing dichotomy is between the
“solitary reader” and “the reader in context” (Hartley, 2003, p. 22;
Long, 2003, p. 3; Barstow, 2003, p. 10; Burwell, 2007, p. 284).
Agents are “friends, neighbours, or family” (Hartley, 2003, p.
41) who form a homogeneous group “in age, class, educational status
and stage in life-cycle” (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 574; Hartley, 2003;
Long, 2003, p. 48; Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 81; Burwell, 2007, p.
285). Yet reading groups can also serve as a way of bringing women
“out of the restricted circles of kin, neighbours, and those who
shared political and religious sympathies and into egalitarian forms
of contact with other women rather different from themselves” (Long,
2003, p. 48).
Women find or join a reading group
because they “need to connect with others” and enjoy an atmosphere
of “sharing and caring” (Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 69), and also
because they want “to maintain their currency as literate citizens”
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 583). Thus, they meet to have book
discussions: the Purpose of this vocabulary. Book discussions
have to leave room “to include each member’s opinions and life
situations” (Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 84) because these “different
views” keep the group going (Barstow, 2003, p. 6). They can best be
compared to a conversation between different reading experiences, as
reading group readers do not read “from the same page” (Hartley,
2003, p. 151) and have “such richly differentiated previous
experiences” (Long, 2003, p. 28). These differences are “the joy of
the group” (Hartley, 2003, p. 80).
The debate follows “the model of ‘emotional literacy’ which values
teamwork, listening, and sharing over self-assertion and winning the
argument” (Hartley, 2003, p. 137). It is not the ultimate
goal to “reach consensus” (Hartley, 2003, p. 136), yet some control
mechanisms, such as “silencing or stigmatizing members” and “joking
and a lack of responsiveness” (Long, 2003, p. 187), may enforce
To facilitate this discussion, reading
group readers need the ability to bond: Agency. Building a
community of readers (Hartley, 2003, p. 138; Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p.
69), making everybody “feel at home,” creating “an atmosphere of
‘trust,’” “social well-being” (Hartley, 2003, p. 16; Long, 2003, p.
187), and “group solidarity” (Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 69) are motives
allocated to the principle of Agency within this vocabulary.
“The books themselves, the range of
opinion in the group, the background of context or information which
people bring to the book, the congenial atmosphere” enable a good
discussion (Hartley, 2003, p. 74). The conversation focalizes on
“the book that everyone has read” (Hartley, 2003, p. 19; Poole,
2003, p. 6). So this competence presupposes readers’ willingness to
read different books “than they would read on their own” and to
respect various reading modes (Long, 2003, p. 187). These seem to
amount to bonding with characters: empathy with the characters and
with the other readers, and the author’s empathy with the
characters, are the key ingredients for engagement with a book
(Hartley, 2003, p. 132; Poole, 2003, p. 5; Long, 2003, p. 152;
Burwell, 2007, p. 286).
As a consequence, books are chosen for
their “discussibility.” A discussible book is defined as “a book
people can take different opinions on and find evidence in the text
to support” (Long, 2003, p. 118). That is why “bad” books can become
popular, as they can lead to good discussions (Hartley, 2003, p.
Books can also be chosen because of a
friend’s recommendation, which may or may not rely on literary
reviews. This explains how some novels become “overwhelmingly
popular” (Long, 2003, p. 122). We can conclude that literature
within this vocabulary functions as a way to connect to the world
and “as a conduit for conversation” (Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 69).
The Scene, finally, has to
reflect this feeling of intimacy, because the “domestic location
contributes significantly to the whole experience” (Hartley, 2003,
p. 15). The dichotomy between local versus global, and a “smaller
circle of known faces,” “small scale,” “direct contact” and “word of
mouth” versus “the all-encompassing media” and “long-distance links”
(Hartley, 2003, p. 14) shape this part of the discourse. The reading
group is presented as a “safe environment” where friendships are
fostered (Hartley, 2003, p. 16; Poole, 2003, p. 6).
When people argue about proper
interpretations or about using notes, or compare reading groups to
university or educational practices, they are viewing the reading
group through the lens of the Cultural Repertoire.
We start this vocabulary from the
Scene-Agency imbalance, as this repertoire is dominated by the
paradoxical conclusion that the reading mode is both and at the same
time “erudite, analytic, (…) morally and intellectually” (Long,
2003, p. 3) and “interruptible,” “ephemeral and “circumscribed by
the ties of personal relationships’ (p. 5). Indeed, there may be
“references to college and graduate school papers about novels as
well as by episodes of formal analysis during book discussions”
(Long, 2003, p. 152), but the discussions deal predominantly with
experiential reading. Both Hartley and Long refer to Certeau’s
concept of “poaching” as a reading mode: readers “snatch what they
need from the grounds of legitimate culture” (Long, 2003, p. 30). Or
as Hartley puts it, “their sort of reading is what French scholars
call poaching; groups take over and appropriate their books to read
in the ways that best suit them” (Hartley, 2003, p. 138;
Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 573) or “for what they find interesting to
discuss” (Long, 2003, p. 220). Reading is seen as acquiring what
Edmund Burke calls “equipment for living” (cited
in Long, 2003, p. xviii) rather than as a way of improving
literary criticism (Long, 2003,
p. 220). Reading groups prefer the semantic to the aesthetic reading
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 573), “reading for pleasure” to “schooled
reading” (Long, 2003, p. 220). They value the different reading
experiences of the individual reader over the accredited academic
interpretation (Long, 2003, p. 221). Groups, Hartley (2003) argues,
“often deplore what they see as their literary shortcomings.” But,
she adds, “they have a sad tendency for joint depreciation” (p.
One of the complaints made about reading
groups is that they have created the “reading group book, an
undemanding and dreary genre of safe, middlebrow best-sellers
created by and for reading groups. The figures from our survey just
don’t bear this out” (Hartley, 2003, p. 154) They don’t read genre
or formulaic books, either (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 575; Long, 2003,
p. 119; Poole, 2003, p. 5). They develop their Agency through
contemporary fiction and life-writing, books written by women and
“generated within their own culture” (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 572;
Long, 2003, p. 120) instead of through avant-garde literature (Long,
2003, p. 59). Their book choice is less “classical” than their
school or university reading (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 575). They
hesitate over classics (Hartley, 2003, p. 78) but still read them,
which is seen as “a morally and intellectually enhancing experience”
(Long, 2003, p. 119) or as “low-risk reading because they provide
guaranteed cultural worth” (Long, 2003, p. 120).
Indeed, reading group readers accept the
authority of cultural arbiters (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 578; Long,
2003, p. 121) for their book choice to “legitimate choices and to
predict the outcome of their reading experience” (Long, 2003, p.
122). Literary reviews, booksellers, friends and other reading group
members are used as mediators between the wider world and the
reading group (Long, 2003, p. 123). They also accept an established
hierarchy of taste (Long, 2003, p. 118): classics, contemporary
serious fiction, good best-selling books, science fiction, westerns,
and at the bottom of the hierarchy, romances (Long, 2003, p. 120). Finally,
their reading choice is influenced by literary prizes and book
reviews (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 578; Poole, 2003, p. 5). Yet
the books are chosen for their “narrative” and “character-interest”
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 567; Poole, 2003, p. 6) rather than for
their “textuality,” “experimentation,” or “literary distinction”
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 568).
Their book discussions, however, are
neither dominated by “literary talk” nor by reading group notes
devised by literary practitioners (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 575;
Hartley, 2003, p. 101). Some readers want to discuss the book “as
they had at university” and show a desire to learn (Rehberg Sedo,
2003, p. 69), but others “don’t want it to feel like studying”
(Hartley, 2003, p. 34). They read for pleasure (Hartley, 2003, p.
35; Long, 2003, p. 127). Their response is personal rather than
literary: they use “their own life experiences as a basis for
speculation on characters’ motives in much the same way they might
engage in gossip about real people” (Poole, 2003, p. 5).
The discrepancies within Agency
are reflected by the ambiguities within the Agents. They are
characterised by “flexibility,” “openness to new ideas,”
“cross-cultural sensitivity,” and being able to deal with
“ambiguity” (Hartley, 2003, p. 13).
Reading group readers both belong to and
distinguish themselves from the group of cultural valuators. Reading
group readers are depicted as different from cultural authorities
such as professors, reviewers, and booksellers (Long, 2003, p. 117).
However, a majority work within book-related fields (Hartley, 2003,
p. 35) and are well-educated (Hartley, 2003, p. 35; Poole, 2003, p.
2; Burwell, 2007, 285), “which makes contemporary women reading
groups seem like an endeavour in continuing or lifelong education
rather than a compensatory activity” (Long, 2003, p. 62). Yet they
see being non-academic as “part of their self-definition” (Hartley,
2003, p. 138). Long speculated that reading groups may even cause a
certain discomfort for academics, as they “inevitably bring into
view both the commercial underside of literature and the scholar’s
position of authority in the world of reading” (Long, 2003, p. 11).
Reading group readers are defined as
serious middlebrow, in contrast to academic readers on the one hand
and the “wish-fulfilment” or “lazy reader” on the other. They are
simultaneously “vilified for lowering taste” and “celebrated as a
sign of flourishing literacy” (Burwell, 2007, p. 282). They form
“this constituency of informed freethinkers, committed to reading,
yet standing at sceptical arm’s length from the business of
producing, selling and reviewing books is invaluable” (Hartley,
2003, p. 156). They don’t want to be managed by the cultural
“mainstream” (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 571), but they are unaware of
the processes that “price, print, and ‘push’ a title” (Long, 2003,
p. 116) and that drive bookstore owners, book chains, and
librarians. And as the
“availability” of a book through local bookstores and the existence
of a paperback edition are “preconditions for choice,” reading group
readers are steered by these market policies (Long, 2003, p. 116).
Yet at the same time they have a “profound impact on the publishing
industry” (Burwell, 2007, p. 281).
Cultural gatekeepers, in turn, don’t
seem to appreciate the cultural praxis of women readers and reading
groups. They are described as having internalised the view that
“they seek ‘light and frivolous’ materials” (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p.
571). The reading group has been deprecated by cultural valuators as
a place “where ladies can gossip while indulging their interest in
literature” (Poole, 2003, p. 2), as “chat and chew” sessions
(Sorenson, 1991, cited in Poole, 2003, p. 2), as “stitch and bitch
sewing bees” (Alice, 1998, cited in Poole, 2003, p. 2), and as a
“quaint, old-fashioned leisure activity” (Howie, 1998, cited in
Poole, 2003, p. 2). Thus they were not worthy of “serious research”
(Howie, 1998, cited in Poole, 2003, p. 2), have been
under-researched (Long, 2003), but are increasingly being
researched (Burwell, 2007, p. 282).
From that, the researchers describe the
Scene as an important site “for the acquisition of cultural
capital” (Poole, 2003, p. 1; Burwell,
2007, p. 286) “outside institutional frameworks,” “neither
securely within nor outside cultural authorities” (Devlin-Glass,
2001, p. 571), and “at a healthy distance from the professional
world of writing and reviewing” (Hartley, 2003, p. 156).
Thus the Act can be described as
“a complex dance entailing negotiation, selection, and conflict, and
very often silent resistance with cultural providers” (Devlin-Glass,
2001, p. 573) renegotiating “the boundaries of legitimate culture”
(Long, 2003, p. 128).
The Purpose of the reading
group within the Cultural Repertoire is to “negotiate taste and
texts for a variety of purposes other than the narrowly aesthetic,
and in this their practice is more closely aligned with the
broadening of the academy’s curriculum than they realise”
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 573). They have also redefined the term
“literary,” which refers to “things literary” such as “literary
epitaphs” and the “literary meritocracy,” such as the “pedigree and
connections” of the writer (Long, 2003, p. 129). The Purpose
is about acquiring the right to
disseminate literary taste (Burwell, 2007, p. 286).
Reading groups don’t adhere to the “Art
for Art’s Sake” formula that Burke saw as an Agency-Purpose
identification (Burke, 1945, p. 289). They “challenge authoritative
literary opinion” (Long, 2003, p. 156). Reading group readers see
themselves “as advocates for a new map of literary culture and
possibly as claimants for a new kind of cultural authority based on
open-mindedness, literary populism, and reading competence across
generic boundaries” (Long, 2003, p. 128). Within this new paradigm
the focus shifts from the difference between readers and “serious”
readers to the dissimilarities between “reader and non-reader.” This
new literary judgment does not focus on high and low culture but
rather on “worthwhile reading and trash reading.” It favours
“avidity” over the “purity of taste” and the “moral seriousness of
the discussion” over “the formal qualities of a given genre or
individual book” (Long, 2003, p. 128).
Do women actually change through reading within a
reading group or do they remain their receptive, pleasure-seeking
“sensuous, frilled, and frivolous,” “mundane” selves (Long, 2003, p.
5)? The debate concerning this question is addressed within the
Transformative Repertoire, which starts from the motives allocated
to the principle of Agent.
Women juxtapose their social roles and
their sense of self (Long, 2003, p. 157). They are often
characterised by their need to move away from an existing situation
either because their life differs from the life lived by their
mothers (Long, 2003, p. 63) or because they want to escape the
“monotony of work” (Hartley, 2003, p. 36; Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p.
Confronted with otherness, we can
subdivide the Agent into innovative and conservative readers.
Innovative readers “try on new ideas,” “share experiences,” “enter
the world enriched by the process” (Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 85) and
value the challenge of “reassessing” opinions (Hartley, 2003, p.
84). Conservative readers, however, “distance themselves,” avoid
confrontations with unpleasant issues, and “reflect shared
expectations that exist prior to the act of reading” (Barstow, 2003,
On a more global level, we can discern
between First and Third World citizens, where First World women are
depicted as “secular, liberated and having control over their own
lives” and the Third World woman is depicted “as a singular,
monolithic subject, without agency and complexity, and in need of
rescue” (Burwell, 2007, p. 289).
“Immersion rather than analysis” (Long,
2003, p. 152) defines the Agency within the
Transformative Repertoire, as the books have to become “real” for
reading group readers to relate to them as other possible lives.
Identification with a character facilitates this perception.
Solitary readers also identify with characters, but within
a reading group this identification
becomes more powerful because the reader hears the reactions of her
fellow members and their personal narratives. Thus, the
“characters become a prism for the interrogation of self, other
selves, and society beyond the text” (Long, 2003, p. 153). The
reading mode is what Booth calls “coduction,” emphasizing the
comparative process by which readers unavoidably perceive and judge
any person or story against the backdrop of all other people and
stories they have known (Long, 2003, p. 26)
have already mentioned the importance of reading books other than
personal book choices within the Social Repertoire as facilitating
the bonding process. Within the Transformative Repertoire
these books, being “more adventurous,”
“controversial” and “more demanding than their private reading”
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 575), help readers connect to other possible
Although reading groups read
predominantly national literature written in their mother tongue,
“orientalising” fiction, or fiction that seeks to understand other
cultures as a primary focus (Devlin Glass, 2001, p. 578),
belong to their reading fare. Recent reading groups even show a
preference for the “consumption of texts by and about women living
in the Third
World” (Burwell, 2007, p. 282).
They also read differently, “citing more
attention to the text and to their own reactions” (Long, 2003, p.
187). “As such these discussions can encourage (through difference
and disputation) a clearer articulation of partially formulated
perceptions and implicit assumptions, whether about a specific book
or about personal experience. This process is particularly
enlightening for participants (and perhaps most innovative) when
groups can forge a new consensus” (Long, 2003, p. 187). When readers
disagree about a book they might “become the champion of literary
heritage” (Long, 2003, p. 177), but scholarship doesn’t win a debate
from experiential truths. Other persuasive strategies are “trying to
make the author into a sympathetic character” (Long, 2003, p.178) or
relating “how important the book or author has been” (Long, 2003, p.
179) in one’s life.
The discussion consists of the
individual’s experience of the book, the experience of other reading
group members, and “related accounts of other members’ personal
experiences” that allow the reading group reader to “inhabit other
subjectivities” (Long, 2003, p. 152). The discussion can be
perceived as “playful,” leaping from “topic to topic” with “a
stream-of-consciousness structure” (Long, 2003, p. 145).
Same-different evaluations play a significant role within these
debates: readers “enjoy finding something they can recognize or feel
close to (…) but they also enjoy exploring what is strange or
different, which they can learn from’ (Long, 2003, p. 177).
Within this repertoire the following
functions are allocated to literature: to “understand and empathize
with different worlds’ (Long, 2003, p. 152), to gain “recognition
and insight,” “to question their own values” (Long, 2003, p. 154),
to broaden a sense of possibilities (Long, 2003, p. 181), and to
engage with the “pleasures of deep emotional involvement,
meaningfulness, or illumination of their experience” (Long, 2003, p.
The Scene is characterised as semiprivate
(Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 571; Hartley, 2003, p. 120). This is “a
social space that calls our received distinction between public and
private into question” (Long, 2003, p. 120), where the home is
intertwined with different contexts: the “contemporary historical
moment” (Long, 2003, p. 22) and the discursive space of the “clash
of civilizations” or of “global sisterhood”
(Burwell, 2007, p. 289).
The Scene is also defined as a place where the boundaries
between cultural representations and “’real life’ become blurred”
(Long, 2003, p. 174).
The “as-if” plot can be described as the
Act in this vocabulary, focusing on the reflection “on
identities they already have but also to bring new aspects of
subjectivity into being” (Long, 2003, p. 22; Burwell, 2007, p. 286).
Thus, the Act shows the process of negotiating “life choices
and identities” (Long, 2003, p. 68). This can be an innovative
exercise, “creating new connections, new meanings, and new
relationships — to the characters in books or their authors, to
themselves, to the other members of the group, to the society and
culture in which they live” (Long, 2003, p. 22). Alternatively, it
can turn into a conservative response reinforcing stereotypes,
“rewriting both the writer and her text according to scripted
first-world narratives” (Amireh, 2000, p. 215, cited in Burwell,
2007, p. 289). The conservative response refuses “to imagine other
ways of living” (Long, 2003, p. 182) or reduces “heterogeneous
histories” “to the myth of an unchanging monolith,” or perceives
single texts “as representing ‘the truth’ about large and diverse
populations” (Burwell, 2007, p. 288). Innovative acts lead to
remaking reading group identities (Long, 2003, p. 22), whereas
conservative acts end up “appropriating” and “assimilating”
(Burwell, 2007, p. 286) the narrative to gratify the reading
The Purpose within this
vocabulary is to explore other subjectivities. This can be realised
as having made “new friends” and becoming “more reflective,” “more
tolerant of others,” and “more confident” in groups (Long, 2003, p.
111). “Reading group discussions perform creative cultural work, for
they enable participants to articulate or even discover who they
are: their values, their aspirations, and their stance toward the
dilemmas of their worlds” (Long, 2003, p. 145) that “structure the
narratives we read and the lives we lead” (Long, 2003, p. 61). Thus,
the Purpose of readers within the Transformative Repertoire
is to “discover their desires and articulate new possibilities for
being” (Long, 2003, p. 157).
The Narrative Repertoire defies the
perception of the female reader who prefers the “consumption and
‘creation’ of ephemeral or questionable culture” (Long, 2003, p. 7)
and who sticks to writing letters. How do women use books as a
language to “narrate their own experience” (Long, 2003, p. xviii)?
Long defines this as a “kind of imaginative experience” (Long, 2003,
p. 145). She quotes De Beauvoir and Atwood to indicate this to be a
logical step, moving from the “object” of someone else’s life to
subject of one’s own. However, she only mentions one reader-writer
who was “developing a part-time career as a writer after her
children had left home” (Long, 2003, p. 81). Hartley also found but
one group that “has made the leap from reading to writing” (Hartley,
2003, p. 113).
The Agency enabling this step
consists of intermingling both the personal and the fictional
narratives; a “creative” but not a “reactive reflection” leading to
“cultural invention” (Long, 2003, p. 60). Self-disclosure plays an
important role in this repertoire (Poole, 2003, p. 7). Reading
groups seem to motivate self-disclosure as “less risky or less
consequential than it would be among peers one sees every day”
(Long, 2003, p. 211).
We include in this repertoire discussion
about the popularity of the biography/autobiography/memoir category.
Why are “life narratives” so popular (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 580)?
They are criticized because they are “tedious,” contain “too much
name-dropping,” “recorded speech,” or are “too long” (Hartley, 2003,
pp. 57-58). However, they are called popular because life narrative
is a genre preferred by women (Rehberg Sedo, 2003, p. 79; Poole,
2003, p. 2). This assertion, however, is contradicted by Hartley’s
and Long’s findings that men seem to prefer biographies slightly
more than do women (Hartley, 2003, p. 59; Long, 2003, p. 113). Long,
however, suggests an unconscious link between the internal conflicts
in both the subject of the life narrative and the reader herself
(Long, 2003, p. 134). Finally, we have to mention that another
reason life narratives are popular is because publishers “sell the
memoir to book club readers” (Burwell, 2007, p. 290).
As a consequence, the Agents are
subdivided between readers and narrators and also between men and
women. Men are supposed to pose a threat to self-disclosure (Poole,
2003, p. 4). Men are still characterized as writers and reading
groups are still depicted as opposed to writers, who are met at
“meet-the-writer fora” (Devlin-Glass, 2001, p. 580), “author events”
(Hartley, 2003, p. 9), “the marketing practice of having writers
meet readers both on-line and at over-subscribed Writers’ Festivals”
(Poole, 2003, p. 1), “book-and author luncheons” (Long, 2003, p.
76), and ‘author appearances” (Burwell, 2007, p. 281). Reading group
members hardly ever become writers, but writers can participate in
the “readers’ conversation,” becoming “one of the discussion group”
(Hartley, 2003, p. 5).
The Act can be described as a
group of people carrying formed and unformed stories helping each
other formulate new stories through fictional and personal stories;
to “become the story” (Hartley, 2003, p. 114) or to create a
“narration of the self” (Burwell, 2007, p. 286). According to Long,
reading groups “have given women different ways to ‘narrate the
self,’” which she defines as being able “to understand their lives
or vicariously to live through other choices, other ways of being in
the word” (Long, 2003, p. 60). However, Hartley suspects this to be
an area “where British and US groups diverge most” (Hartley, 2003,
p. 114), as her findings don’t support this.
The Scene can be situated on the
border between the inner lives and the level of action within the
reading group room, “a space for women to think about how their
inner lives and external careers” differ (Long, 2003, p. 61).
We have limited our analysis to
contemporary reading groups that meet within physical environments
and during their leisure time. The aim of this study was to
construct different ways to talk about the reading group experience.
Researchers focus on “reader,” “home,” “reading mode,” “purpose,”
“discussion mode,” “book,” “book choice,” and “book meeting” to
characterise the reading group experience. They problematized these
through dichotomies such as male-female, academy-home,
literary-personal, education-pleasure, book-focused versus personal
narratives, classics-reading group book, cultural-personal,
solitary-group, and historical-contemporary. We have sought to
understand these contrasts by looking for Repertoires researchers
used to talk about reading groups. As such we have detected the
Historical, Social, Cultural, Transformational and Narrative
We started with the Historical
Repertoire, with Scene as its Ancestral Principle. The
historical reader reads alone either in his scholarly study or in
her home. Historical readers read either for intellectual and moral
improvement or for pleasure to pass time. Their reading mode is
analytical or ephemeral. Their books are either “tomes” or letters.
They are scholars or bourgeois white women.
From this Historical Repertoire we have
defined four repertoires on contemporary reading groups. When we see
the reading group as an act to bring people together, we use the
Social Repertoire, foregrounding Act. From this the Agents
are depicted as lonely and sociable readers who use books to bond
and start up conversations within a safe environment.
When we portray the reading group as a
way to discuss literature in an alternative mode, we use the
Cultural Repertoire, starting from Agency. This repertoire
commutes between accepting the literary practice and redefining it.
Readers are mostly highly educated, work within the literary field,
and rely on cultural valuators for their book choices but don’t want
to be perceived as intellectuals. Their reading mode is a mixture
between literary analysis and experiential feedback, poaching books
to serve their needs. The literary aesthetic they want to
disseminate prefers avidity to pure taste, worthwhile reading to
trash, readers to non-readers, and quality discussions to canonical
When we question the effect of the reading group on
its members, we position ourselves within the Transformative
Repertoire, initiated by Agent. We distinguish between
conservative or progressive readers who achieve a consensus within
their book discussion. Books help readers see the world through
other eyes, the eyes of the character, who obtains the status of a
real person. The borders between the real and fictional world are
blurred. Readers seek to redefine their identities.
Finally, when we wonder why reading
groups do not lead to the development of new narratives, we argue
from the Narrative Repertoire, with Purpose as its Ancestral
Principle. Do reading group readers endeavour to write more than
letters? Are there readers and writers in the reading group? How do
they use books to tell their own stories?
We have combined these vocabularies into
a Repertoire Matrix that allows people to frame their view on the
contemporary reading group. We argued that these four repertoires
counter narrative components within the Historical Repertoire. As
such, the reading group developed along the pattern of division from
the academic and private world, with the Cultural Repertoire
functioning as a bridging vocabulary because it partakes somewhat of
both the academic and the reading group discourses.
Interpretive repertoires allow
researchers to establish a metavision by asking whose concerns are
served by which dominant repertoire. To answer this question, we
feel we have to study the reading group in other contexts and see
whether the selection of repertoires varies.
Women’s reading was confined within
their social role in the Historical Repertoire. They grow through
bonding (Social Repertoire) to avid readers (Cultural Repertoire) to
redefinition of possible lives (Transformative Repertoire). But how
they are affected by their reading group experiences to obtain
rights which are not prescribed by their social roles needs further
We have limited our study to research
reports that study reading groups outside the educational context,
as the feelings toward this literary institute proved to be
ambiguous. However, we think it is important to study reading groups
through this lens as well.
Finally, “there are of course low
points, disasters, splits, and spats” (Hartley, 2003, p. 95), but
how do they happen? What effects do they have on the reading group?
Again, this is a topic for further research.
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Contact (by email):
Patricia Huion is doing her Ph.D. at the University of