Why Does Every Famous Woman Have a Book Club Now?

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos: Getty Images

On Tuesday, in a characteristically delightful interview with Bustle, Dakota Johnson launched her “TeaTime” book club, announcing that her first pick was Beautyland, by Marie-Helene Bertino. It’s a quiet, lyrical book published in January by FSG, about a working-class girl named Adina who is born in 1977 and soon starts being visited each night by aliens from another galaxy who use her to glean information about life on Earth. It’s exactly the kind of slightly off-kilter thing you’d expect Dakota Johnson to be drawn to if, like me, you are a semi-scholar of the queen nepo baby who made a fool of Ellen DeGeneres and has claimed both to love and to be allergic to limes and simply will not promote her wannabe-blockbuster movie, Madame Web, which is what she’s really supposed to be doing interviews about right now. Instead, here she was talking about her book club. “Our book club is literary fiction. It’s not beach reads. It’s not silly,” Johnson told Bustle. “It’s not all female authors, but it is female-forward, and it’s a lot of first-time novelists.” She wants to use the club to bring a bit of gravitas to Instagram: “People need to deep dive into knowledge about specific things rather than talking about what fucking face serum they’re using and thinking that that’s the most important thing in the world.” She then went on to say that she loves face serum.

Every single thing about this announcement piqued my interest. It also got me wondering about why it is, exactly, that so many actresses want to become bookfluencers. For Johnson, it’s not solely about material gain: She hasn’t optioned Beautyland yet, merely thought about how she’d go about adapting it while acknowledging that adaptation is hard. (“I know Margot Robbie’s company is making My Year of Rest and Relaxation. But how the fuck? I don’t know how you do that.” Me neither, Dakota!) For others, of course, it’s all about the cash. Reese Witherspoon has been canniest about monetizing her taste in books, creating a business where her monthly picks are sent out in a newsletter and proclaimed on a website, as well as optioned by her production company, Hello Sunshine, which she recently sold to Blackstone Group for $900 million. Making her book-club picks into movies and TV shows is clearly the driving force behind Witherspoon’s club. But she’s also used the idea of being bookish to burnish her image. Being a guru with industry clout on the production side gives Witherspoon a plausible next chapter at 47, an age when acting roles begin to become scarcer for women.

Dua Lipa, both Emmas (Roberts and Watson), Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Florence Welch and all have book clubs, or at least media channels that recommend books. The most committed seems to be Emma Roberts, who runs Belletrist with former producer and developer Karah Preiss. Founded, like Hello Sunshine, in 2017, Belletrist also doubles as a production company and has successfully converted two of its monthly picks into streaming shows, First Kill on Netflix and Tell Me Lies on Hulu (neither of which I have ever heard of, but actually getting a book converted to streamable content is a huge accomplishment, so congratulations). Belletrist is also clearly produced by someone who has good taste in books and who doesn’t limit their reading to new releases, with picks like Sex and Rage, by Eve Babitz, and the collected stories of Shirley Hazzard. Though Preiss seems likely to be doing much of the legwork here, the whole enterprise has had the effect of making Roberts seem like more of a serious actress and less like Julia Roberts’s niece.

Beyond the realm of clubs, there are also celebrities who simply want to be seen reading books, ideally good ones. In this category we find the professionally gorgeous people Kaia Gerber and Kendall Jenner. Gerber technically has a “book club,” which consists of her hosting chats with authors like Emily Ratajkowski on Instagram Live, and she’s also often photographed with books, including titles by Dolly Alderton and Annie Ernaux. But the queen of being photographed with books that both are good and also coordinate with her swimwear is Jenner, and the books she’s seen with are notably obscure, often published by small presses with limited print runs.

In 2019, the author of one of these books, Darcie Wilder, decided to investigate how a Kardashian family member ended up being photographed reading her memoir, Literally Show Me a Healthy Person. After Jenner was shot reading the book, it sold out on Amazon. Wilder got to the bottom of how the book ended up in Jenner’s hands relatively easily by finding Ashleah Gonzales tagged in Jenner’s IG post. Gonzales, who is also a published poet, is now widely acknowledged to be Jenner’s book concierge, tasked with supplying the model and reality star with ’grammable literature, often annotated throughout with turquoise Post-it notes.

But does getting anointed by celebrities usually improve sales the way that the Kendall Jenner photograph did for Wilder’s book? One agent I spoke to said that having a book photographed in Kaia Gerber’s arms was more of an ego boost for everyone involved than anything else, though it might have galvanized efforts behind the scenes somewhat: “I don’t think it had tangible sales results, but it did make us feel that the novel had momentum and buzz at a crucial time in its publication, which I think also encouraged the publisher to double down on their publicity and marketing efforts.” She went on: “We are all so desperate for people to give a shit about books that honestly we’ll take all we can get.” Another agent who had a book briefly visible in a scene on And Just Like That … — more on how books are chosen as props in this fascinating Vogue story — said that it caused a brief jump but nothing sustainable. “It’s an hours- or day-long lift in Amazon rankings, before settling to where it was before.” The clubs, in general, don’t have the power to change a book’s trajectory, this agent says, because really nothing does in today’s dismal publishing climate: “It used to be that things like Oprah’s or Reese’s book club, Book of the Month, or being a Good Morning America pick would be an instant rocket to success, but their effect seems to have been diluted in a really oversaturated market.”

My working theory about all of this is straightforwardly cynical: Celebrities mostly use books to add another layer to their personae, carrying around status handbags shaped like piles of paper with pages. Their rationales may vary, but cultivating bookishness is as good a way as any to transition from one career phase to a more multidimensional one, in the same way that a former Disney teen might guest star on Law & Order SVU as a murder suspect in order to graduate to more mature roles. And Dakota Johnson, who clearly does not give a fuck about anything, is doing a book club because she feels like it, and if it results in a movie project, all the better. Like everything Johnson does and doesn’t do, I can’t help but co-sign her choices. She’s an agent of chaotic good.

Why Does Every Famous Woman Have a Book Club Now?