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Resignations, accusations, and a board in crisis: The fallout at the National Book Critics Circle.

Corinne Segal

June 18, 2020, 10:31am

Members of the National Book Critics Circle are mobilizing to remove Carlin Romano, a member of its board, from his position after he criticized an anti-racist pledge the organization was planning to release, then threatened to sue his colleagues on the board in the ensuing shake-up.

Now, 15 of the board’s 24 members have resigned, more than two dozen members are ready to call for a meeting to vote on his removal, and the NBCC is confronting a difficult path forward—along with a controversy that has overshadowed longstanding issues around race there and efforts to address them.

Earlier this month, the NBCC had planned to respond to recent anti-racism protests with a statement outlining its efforts to support members of color. A committee comprising about half the board, led by Ugandan American writer Hope Wabuke, drafted a pledge that they shared with the full board on June 10. After a round of comments from other board members and edits to the pledge, then-president Laurie Hertzel reached out to several board members who had not yet weighed in and “asked them to at least let everyone else know they had seen the statement,” she told Lit Hub.

Carlin Romano, a writer, critic-at-large for The Chronicle of Higher Education, and former NBCC president, responded. He wrote to the board that he disagreed with the pledge’s assertion that American book publishing is rife with institutional racism and the effects of white supremacy. “I resent the idea that whites in the book publishing and literary world are an oppositional force that needs to be assigned to re-education camps … In my 40 years in literary and publishing life, I’ve seen far more of white people helping black writers than of black people helping white writers,” he wrote.

Hertzel responded that his objections were “valid,” and another board member wrote to say they “appreciate [Romano’s] input” and to ask a question about the statement’s use of the term “white supremacy.”

Wabuke posted the whole exchange on Twitter on June 11, and President Laurie Hertzel, Victoria Chang, John McWhorter, Connie Ogle, and Katherine A. Powers resigned from the board. Then, Hope resigned. “It is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain,” she wrote on Twitter.

Remaining board members began discussing Romano’s role on the board and whether they could remove him. On June 12, after hearing of those conversation, Romano wrote to remaining board members over email:

If you continue on this route of trying to vote me off the Board, I will sue the NBCC as an organization for defamation and on other causes of action, and will also file suit against each of you individually who vote for that on the same causes of action. I will do so in personam, which will mean that no one can easily cover your individual legal fees. I have lots of energy for this, and it will cost me nothing. I have been carefully taking notes for future legal action if necessary.

After that, some members of the board met with an attorney who advised that under Illinois laws governing 501(c)(3) nonprofits, they alone could not remove Romano. According to the NBCC bylaws, a board member can only be removed at a meeting of the full membership that is called expressly for that purpose.

On Saturday, Hertzel said, she told the board she was preparing to tell the Associated Press of her resignation, and a board member asked if the board could alert the membership. She said yes, and soon afterward, someone on the board sent her official resignation on official letterhead to the entire membership. “I didn’t know that the board was simply going to release my statement without any explanation or preamble—I imagine this was pretty shocking and confusing for members to receive,” she said.

Hertzel added that Romano “has a history of being a flamethrower.” When she was running for NBCC president, she said, he “spent many, many days emailing the NBCC board to disparage my character and tell them that I had behaved in unethical ways,” calling the accusations “humiliating and extremely upsetting.” A previous board president told her that he had proven essentially impossible to remove from the board. “I was told that previous boards had tried in the past, and each time he threatened to sue both the full board and each individual board member,” she said. (Romano told Lit Hub that did not spend many days disparaging Hertzel’s character, and that “I simply brought to the Board’s attention an action I thought we should discuss.” He also denied that he had threatened to sue the Board or individual members in the past.)

Charles Finch, Megan Labrise, and Ismail Muhammad—who was set to lead a new social justice initiative for the NBCC—also resigned over the weekend, followed by others, including Lit Hub contributing editor Kerri Arsenault. Present and former board members told Lit Hub that they had resigned for a number of reasons: some resigned in support of Wabuke, others in protest of her tweets, still others because they believed that her tweets, including one accusing another board member of anti-Black racism, had made it impossible for the board to continue working together. Muhammad wrote on Twitter that “the idea of changing the organization from the inside is untenable.” On Monday, Carolyn Kellogg wrote in a statement on Twitter that that the board had failed to give Wabuke sufficient support and that the NBCC “has a long way to go” before living up to the anti-racist pledge it wrote.

Kellogg told Lit Hub that she had debated whether to resign, but ultimately, she “felt like the board itself was becoming irreparably tainted by one toxic member as well as a series of actions and reactions that seemed not to be meeting the ideals that we had just signed onto in the anti-racism pledge.”

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In the middle of the shake-up, on June 11, an NBCC working committee posted its anti-racist pledge online. The pledge commits to establishing a Diversity and Inclusion Committee, which will be led by a NBCC board member and address issues like diversity in membership and white gatekeeping in prize selections. It also commits to a new social justice initiative that would have been led by Muhammad, who resigned, and to greater support for the Emerging Critics mentorship program. The future of that social justice initiative is now unclear.

On June 18, the NBCC announced that in the wake of recent events, board members would undergo diversity training, it would “enhance our support” for the Emerging Critics program, and the organization would reach out to members to hear ideas on “how the NBCC can best support marginalized communities.”

Writer Yahdon Israel, who served on the board from 2016 to 2019, told Lit Hub that talking about books by authors of color was often difficult on a majority-white board that was resistant to openly addressing race as part of a book’s literary mission and value. “The understanding I had of the board was that anytime race became the central focus of a book, it became the very thing that undermined the integrity of the book itself,” he said. “For me, in order to talk about it, I had to frame it in language that was disingenuous to the work the book was doing.”

The majority-white board, on which he was the youngest member at the time, also largely represented a different era of publishing and criticism, he said. “The organization as a culture … was not really invested in a marrow-deep evaluation of, what does being a book critic mean in this day and age? What [Romano] represents in that framework is a person who’s holding on to something that no longer exists,” he said. “When the organization first started, book criticism was in a very different place. Intellectual culture was in a very different place. There were more people getting paid livable wages to write a book review, but that also came at the price that there were very few people of color and very few people who were women, very few people who were not white men, who were doing that work.”

The pledge had noted that the NBCC operated in an industry where underrepresentation has long been an issue; Lee & Low Books noted from its 2019 survey that 76 percent of publishing staff are white. The pledge noted that BIPOC writers made up 30 percent of the NBCC awards winners and finalists in 2019, an increase from 22 percent in 2008; still, it said, “we can and must do better.”

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