Legally bookish: Reese Witherspoon and the rise of celebrity book clubs | books

Every novel I’ve ever read as part of a book club involved a sprint to the finish line. My latest group is no different, except for the possibility – at least as I understand it – of being publicly shamed by Reese Witherspoon. Which is why I’m speed-reading Celeste Ng’s new novel, an hour before I’m due to discuss it with my fellow Reese’s Book Club members.

I am already composing my apology to our host in my mind. “Sorry, Reese. It was a really busy month”not just because of all the famous book clubs. Today, more than 25 years since Oprah Winfrey launched hers, everyone runs their own community of readers, from the Queen Consort to rapper Noname, from former NFL quarterback Andrew Luck to singer Ameria, from former vampire slayer Sarah Michelle Gellar to late-night host Jimmy Fallon.

This does not mean organizing monthly meetings in their castles, praying and discussing topics. Since the talkshow-discussion-and-book-bright-sticker-endorsement format pioneered by Winfrey (and, in the UK, Richard and Judy), today’s celebrity book clubs are run through social media.

Each celebrity’s involvement varies widely, from simply posting a cover image on their Instagram Stories, to questioning the author about their intent, live in front of their millions of followers. Likewise, the expectations of “members” can be as minimal as following the discussion without having to read even just the advertising text. Yet despite their informal organization, these virtual reading groups led by a familiar figure have become a driving force within the publishing industry and a factor in many of its greatest recent successes.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (Witherspoon’s inaugural pick, back in 2017), Sorrow and Bliss by Meg Mason (picked by Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop club), Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (picked by the news anchor Jenna Bush Hager group) and Milk and honey Rupi Kaur (in the spotlight Emma Watson) was helped to success by famous readers and their followers. Where Crawdads Sing by Delie Owens has now sold almost a million copies in the UK, according to Nielsen BookData, most well before this year’s film adaptation – and many thanks to the Witherspoon effect.

In the age of social media, Witherspoon has effectively overtaken Winfrey as the biggest powerhouse in publishing, turning good taste in books into one arm of a media empire. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, Ng’s earlier novel Little Fires Everywhere and Where the Crawdads Sing were Reese’s choices before the actor subsequently adapted them for the screen. Daisy Jones & the Six is ​​in production for Amazon Prime.

Oprah Winfrey
We’re paving the way… Oprah’s Book Club could once help a title move an additional 5 million copies. Photo: CBS Photo Archive/Michele Crowe/CBS/Getty Images

For Witherspoon, the value is obvious. She was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of Strayed in the 2014 film Wild, which was the basis for her production company Hello Sunshine. This August, she sold it for an alleged $1 billion. But, says Bea Carvalho, head of fiction at Waterstones, while the sales benefit of any celebrity endorsement is difficult to measure precisely, there is a net benefit to the publishing industry too. “Intersection with film and media always has a positive effect,” she says, “and her conversations on social media raise that profile even further.” Her voice is strong and reliable.”

For Shannon Theumer, one of the first members of the Reese’s Club and the founder of an unofficial Facebook group that has about 100,000 members, Witherspoon was her “way into the world of the book.” Theumer started reading with the actor in 2014, when she was a teenager in rural Germany, and Witherspoon was just posting recommendations on her Instagram. “I grew up reading All Quiet on the Western Front, To Kill a Mockingbird, all that stuff,” says Theumer, now 25 and living in London. “It got to the point where I loved reading, but I wanted to read more about myself.”

She had no idea where to start. “I remember Fifty Shades of Gray was a big deal – I read 10 pages and dropped it. Even when I went to bookstores, I didn’t know what I was looking for.” Witherspoon’s preparation of women’s narratives and authorship “was an approach to literature for me,” says Theumer—as well as a community of readers.

In 2015, after months of reading with Witherspoon, Theumer and a friend set up the @rwbookclub Instagram and Facebook pages to connect with others doing the same. “So many people joined in that we realized it wasn’t just us who thought, ‘This is a great idea.'” Instagram had grown to 100,000 followers when Witherspoon’s team approached her in 2016 about taking it over. “I don’t think it was Reese personally,” she says. “I just spoke to her representative on the phone and handed over the password.”

The handle was changed, the profile was verified, and the visual brand was uniform. “As soon as Reese got involved, it became massive,” says Theumer. Today, 2.5 million people follow @reesesbookclub, compared to less than 700,000 for @oprahsbookclub, although this encourages more active participation. “You can follow us on Instagram,” the FAQ says, but “it’s like watching someone drink a glass of wine: wonderful, but not the same as having your own glass.”

Florence Welch.
In Search of Meaning … Florence Welch. Photo: @betweentwobooks

For the most dedicated members, the online shop sells “box sets” of books grouped by theme, such as grooming or beach reading, while its own line of scented candles, socks and scarves promises to enhance the experience. Proceeds go towards supporting independent booksellers, diverse writers and increased access to literature “to pay our joy of books forward”.

“Membership” is free, dependent only on downloading the official app, where Witherspoon announces a selection each month and leads the discussion through forums, polls and events. Tonight on Zoom, Ng is scheduled to talk about our missing hearts, which Witherspoon praises in the video as “deeply charged” and “sublime” (it’s not, she adds, just because they’re friends). But when I log in, our host is nowhere to be found. Instead, Ng talks to author Nancy Jooyoun Kim, assisted by a cheery blonde woman sitting in front of a color-coordinated bookcase: Witherspoon by proxy. As members filter in from as far away as Canada and Pakistan, we are reminded of the house rules: listen “actively and attentively”; criticize ideas, not people; and withstand all wifi problems.

The 90-minute discussion is thoughtful and extremely positive, not least about the platform itself, which Jooyoun Kim calls “the best book club family in the world.” As for readers, the chat box is lively, with a surprising number of participants with cameras on. It seems I’m the only one drinking wine, but it’s still early on the other side of the Atlantic. Still, with only 150 in attendance, it’s fair to assume that most members had other plans (not just our “book lover in chief”) – which made me wonder why I didn’t have any.

While the conversation is as thoughtful as any I’ve attended at a writers’ festival, and with much less painstaking moderating of questions from the audience, the remote format brings back memories of the online author talks I’ve attended during quarantine, when in-person sessions weren’t possible. That online engagement and desire for community has now become central to the reading experience, Carvalho says, whether through real-world book clubs that meet on Zoom or the explosion of discussions on TikTok.

“You can see with the rise of #BookTok how hungry the readership is for honest recommendations from people they trust,” she says. “Reading and selling books takes place by word of mouth. And I think celebrity book clubs are a version of that, connecting with an audience that has similar tastes.”

Model student... Kaia Gerber recommended Plato and Camus through her literature club.
Model student… Kaia Gerber recommended Plato and Camus through her literature club. Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Academy Museum of Motion Pictures

There are more than 150,000 searches for book recommendations and #BookTok content on TikTok each month, leading the platform to launch its own official book club this July. The first selection was Jane Austen’s Persuasion, recognizing “the community’s preference for the classics”. For celebrities, books are a way to be visible on social media and interact with their followers without drawing attention to their A-lister privilege.

The choice of lyrics can also signal good taste or progressive politics. Emily Ratajkowski has made literature the centerpiece of her Instagram presence as she strives to become better known as a writer than a model. Likewise, 21-year-old model Kaia Gerber’s book club, launched during quarantine, has seen her recommend Plato and Camus as proof she’s more than just a pretty face.

It’s easy to be cynical about the depth of some celebrities’ involvement, but it’s hard to fake a genuine response to a book you haven’t read—plus, in front of millions of followers, they run the risk of being caught out.

Similarly, not every book-as-branding book is superficial. One of the ways the Obamas eased the transition from the political to the cultural sphere was by sharing lists of their books of the year. Singer Florence Welch and actress Emma Watson were among the first celebrities to start reading communities on social media, using them to highlight works significant to their writing or politics.

Compared to the many trials of fame, talking about the books you love is “probably pretty nice,” suggests Carvalho. “Everyone likes to be part of a book club. I think reading is so personal: it feels like a fundamental and honest way to connect with an audience.”

The boom in book clubs reflects the modern acceptance of what might once have been derided as “selling out.” Twenty years ago, Jonathan Franzen infamously expressed doubt about Oprah’s Book Club’s selection of Corrections. At the time, her support was said to sell 5 million additional copies – a number unimaginable today. Today, there was no such objection to Gerber, who took to her Instagram to discuss Franzen’s new novel Crossroads.

In the new publishing economy, authors and even editors are expected to be more visible and engaged. Bloomsbury’s Alexandra Pringle, named editor of the year at this year’s British Book Awards, and author Nesrine Malik launched their own virtual book club last month.

If the literary world was once kept apart from celebrities, now it is in the center of attention. The keynote speaker at this year’s Booker Awards ceremony was pop star Dua Lipa, who spoke eloquently about the comfort she found reading while on tour. And Lipa is reportedly thinking about her own literary club. “She certainly cares about books,” says Gaby Wood, director of the Booker Prize Foundation.

The selection of the singer is part of the Foundation’s effort to celebrate readers as much as authors – as well as to attract some of the celebrity shine for itself. For the first time, this year’s Booker involved real-world book clubs in the decision-making process, with six selected from more than 100 entries across the UK. One was together for decades.

Regardless of which celebrity they align themselves around, Wood says, all book clubs support community building. “If people are more likely to read a book because someone they know recommended it, that’s good for everyone. That individual will then find something for themselves in the book far beyond the original recommendation.”

And while a celebrity might set out, with a book club, to paint themselves with a flattering literary glow, it might be revealing in ways they didn’t foresee. We may even discover that they are, after all, the same as us. After announcing in 2017 that they were starting a book club, Kim Kardashian and Chrissy Teigen went so far as to meet up once and post a few tweets about it—and nothing more. “It never took off,” Kardashian later explained, “because we were lazy.” I never connected with her again.

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