A labour of literary love

Maisie Greener talks to Viv Sweet and Joe Prendergast about their recently launched Queer Book Club

Boasting a Whatsapp group with over sixty members and being a fortnightly topic of discussion among students in between lectures since it launched last term, Viv Sweet and Joe Prendergast’s Queer Book Club has joined an ensemble of exciting student-run passion projects. Speaking to the pair, I wanted to rack their brains about their mutual labour of literary love.

Flipping the table on a question conventionally posed to the meetings’ attendees, I asked Viv and Joe what they were enjoying consuming at the moment. Ginger Pukka tea and HBO’s Girls for Joe, pears and Succession Season Three for Viv. Book club leaders of taste.

The club’s conception traces back to Joe’s pre-Trinity media consumption, which consisted of “a lot of book-related media on TikTok and YouTube, which was all pretty terrible.” However, regardless of its alleged negative canonical value Joe relished the underlying exchange of queer literature. “I wanted to make more friends that were doing English and were also gay,” he says, explaining his motivation for establishing a Trinity branch. Joe’s intentions resonated with Viv who envisaged the club’s revitalisation, after the group chat fell dormant. Viv confessed that she found Joe “so cool” and “had followed him on Instagram and had taken a photo of him in The George once”: the trajectory of many a blossoming Trinity friendship. The groundwork for a creative partnership was laid and the collaborative vision came to fruition. Both noted that necessary alterations were made to the original vision, principally around accessibility of texts in terms of cost and length.

When asked “is there a literary form that you both particularly gravitate towards when suggesting pieces to read, and why?”, the pair countered that they’re inclined not to adhere to one genre or form. Their comprehensive list features interviews, theory, and everything in between. “It’s not that fun to read short story after short story, or criticism after criticism”, Joe explained. Viv cites her twin as the source of many recommendations: “A lot of the things we’ve read already have made their rounds around the Wesleyan echo chambers”. On a personal level, Viv finds it gratifying to look retrospectively on what composed many American queer kids’ identities. Similarly, Joe expressed the personal stakes he has in what is discussed as not “a prescribed list” but “very much what we pick up around the place”.

Convenience and inclusion are very much fundamental ethos underpinning the book club.

Neither have ruled out the possibility of discussing non-literary art, with kitschy candidates like But I’m a Cheerleader having been proposed. Although Joe recognises that films often share the same inaccessible baggage as longer literary works, tending to cost more and demanding more of a time commitment. Convenience and inclusion are very much fundamental ethos underpinning the book club.

When asked whether they would consider making Queer Book Club a closed space, or holding additional closed space sessions, both Viv and Joe acknowledge the pros and cons of this environment. Almost replicating the conditions of a closed space via a disclaimer that “anything personal discussed doesn’t leave the room”, Viv and Joe have endeavoured to create a safe and honest forum. With that being said, Viv expressed concerns that “the nature of the club would have to be changed if it was a closed space as it might add a layer of seriousness to it that I don’t know is necessary when discussing literature”. Expanding on her preoccupations, Viv notes how a closed space format may involve a pressure to define sexualities and publicise it, which could be at odds with the relaxed atmosphere the two endeavour to create. Despite its open status however, Joe observes how “queer people naturally gravitate towards it” anyways. Ultimately, Viv says, ‘in general we read so little queer literature that the more people who engage with it, the better’ and both agree that “a lot of the discussions we have are equally if not more beneficial to non-queer people as they are to queer people”.

Then I echoed the age-old and sometimes begrudged “to what do you owe your success?” question. On a pragmatic level, their changing schedule, alternating between meetings on Mondays and Tuesdays, facilitates greater attendance and the meetings’ on-campus location is more convenient. Perhaps differentiating the Queer Book Club from other events is the small subgroup sizes which, “for shyer people”, Viv explains, “that format really really helps”. “If you’re not used to speaking in a large group or if you are always the quiet person in tutorials, you’ll be sitting in a group of like four to five people and suddenly you realise that you can have intimate conversations about literature without feeling as though you’re putting on a performance or feeling as though you have to prove something to a teacher”. Joe finds it surprising every time someone says they’re looking forward to a meeting, especially as they “don’t even have physical posters or anything”.

Introspectively, both have had personal realisations since starting Queer Book Club. Viv admits that she has a tendency to slip into a pessimism when someone isn’t too keen on the work, especially as she personally wants to move away from cynicism in her own analysis of literary works. Accompanying a confession that he “was quite nervous before the first few” sessions, Joe realised his own potential to lead and coordinate group discussions: a skill which is enthusiastically endorsed by Viv.

‘We have to be very conscientious of the fact that… the literature we choose only represents a fraction of the queer experience.’

On an analytical level, also, I asked the pair to reflect on any recurring themes in the texts discussed. Joe comments that “a lot of my groups have been quite confessional” and often encompass analogies about people’s school years. Similarly, Viv’s group discussions have mostly circled back to childhood and memories of our experiences. Being a tomboy as a child, for example, may or may not have implications on our current identities. “I would never call this therapy, but it’s even a brief psycho-analysis of why we are the way we are today and why we present the way we do.” With these common threads being identified, both partner their points with an acknowledgement that “we have to be very conscientious of the fact that… the literature we choose only represents a fraction of the queer experience”. It is evident to me that neither Viv nor Joe conflate individual agreement with overall unanimity among the queer community.