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Don’t Judge the Book-of-the-Month Club By Its Cover

Although today you might associate its name with staid offerings, the club’s first book was by an openly queer author

Sylvia Townsend Warner, the author whose first book was chosen as the first Book of the Month selection in 1926, was openly involved in relationships with both men and women, a fact that scandalized readers. (Sylvia Townsend Warner by Howard Coster half-plate film negative, 1934 Transferred from Central Office of Information, 1974 / creative commons)
smithsonian.com

The Book-of-the-Month Club published its first selection on this day in 1926.

Lolly Willowes, or the Loving Huntsman, was written by Sylvia Townsend Warner, is described on the club’s website as “a bold and beguiling story about personal freedom, uneasy relationships and witchcraft.” It tells the tale of a woman named Laura Willowes who refused to marry and lead a conventional life.

Warner was an unknown at the time and Lolly Willowes was her first novel. But as Sarah Waters writes for The Guardian, the British author’s first book also made her name and paved the way for a 50-year career in which Warner showed off her myriad skills. She was “a talented musicologist, an admired poet, diarist and letter-writer, a political journalist, an occasional translator and biographer, a prolific short-story writer and the author of seven remarkable novels,” Waters writes.

She also happened to be in romantic relationships with both men and women at a time when, as Waters writes, “British sexual mores were shaken up as never before,” with all of the backlash that entailed. “Book-of-the-Month Club’s 4,000-plus members were not pleased with the novel,” writes History.com. But it didn’t stop Warner, who went on to an illustrious career, and it also didn’t stop the selection committee who chose her work.

When asked about it later, the club writes that Warner said, “I was astonished, delighted and confident that any organization daring enough to pick an unknown author would be a valuable asset to contemporary literature.”

Here’s how it worked: subscribers signed up for the club and each month received a hardcover version of the new release it had chosen as the Book of the Month. The club versions of these books were printed on cheaper paper, writes Ellen F. Brown for the Los Angeles Times. But that didn’t stand in the way of the literature-hungry public, who were happy to get a book, selected for them, at a cheaper price than they would from a bookstore.

“By the 1950s, the club had established itself as a respected industry leader with an eye for picking winners,” Brown writes. “Perhaps most famously, it touted Gone With the Wind to members well before critics and the Pulitzer committee anointed it 1936’s book of the year.”  

The club’s membership peaked in 1988 at 1.5 million subscribers, writes Garrison Keillor for The Writer’s Almanac. But “the advent of the Internet and huge chain bookstores spelled its eventual decline,” he writes. It stopped operating in 2014.

But it was relaunched in late 2015, this time presenting itself as “a fun and reliable way to learn about new releases,” rather than an arbiter of highbrow taste, Brown writes. It has also gone back to its roots: its new "book of the year" award, launched in 2016, is named “The Lolly.”

About Kat Eschner

Kat Eschner is a freelance journalist based in Toronto who focuses on technology, culture and ethics. She recently graduated from the master’s program in journalism at Ryerson University, where she served as editor-in-chief of the Spring 2016 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.

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