I learned a lot in 2020, and one of the things I learned was how much pain comes from seeing a cherished organization rupture and nearly dissolve.
At the time, I was going into my third year on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. I had joined about 10 years earlier, back when I was a grad student and freelance critic and had worked on contract doing tech work. Freelance assignments started coming from newspapers such as the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a testament to the organization’s national recognition, and I made my first connection to PW. The more involved I got with the NBCC, the more it helped me find my place.
In June 2020, there was a shift. The pandemic was ravaging New York City—where I was still paying rent while I holed up in Knoxville, Tenn., with my partner, an artist-in-residence there—and protests against racist police violence were swelling. After one board member suggested the NBCC release a statement in support of racial justice, the idea was met with a series of responses that could charitably be called messy.
My motives for supporting the statement and those behind it were twofold. First: I cared. As someone who came up with economic insecurity and a bit of class anxiety, it took me a while to get into the rooms I wanted to get into, and it took a lot longer to feel comfortable there. As a white man, it certainly was easier for me than others with less privilege, but I spent much of my 20s and early 30s toiling as a bike messenger and housepainter, circling the same blocks and waiting for the same service elevators for many years. Long story short, I wanted to help make things easier for others, so they could benefit the way I did. Second motive: I didn’t want to see the NBCC fall on its ass.
Unfortunately, it did. The story of an incendiary email, a damning tweet, and a cascade of resignations was exhaustively reported by PW, and I won’t rehash it here. Over the following days and weeks, I spent many hours on the phone with dozens of book critics, first in a blossoming Knoxville courtyard, then back in Brooklyn, and finally in Hudson, N.Y., where I moved in July. The public controversy was distressing, to say the least, but ultimately I realized it might have been what we needed to bring about the necessary changes.
As a white man in an organization that was being described as unwelcoming to BIPOC critics and bullying to women, I was initially resistant when Marion Winik—one of the remaining board members I talked with often, and also the point person trying to prevent the organization from dissolving—urged me to run for the presidency. Jane Ciabattari, who had shouldered the burden of acting presidency over the summer, also strongly felt I could be the bridge between the old NBCC and the new NBCC. Others said it made sense for a white dude to take up the work rather than someone already facing the issues. I loved the organization enough to give it a shot.
In August 2020, when I was elected, the NBCC was committed to prioritizing DEI before fulfilling its obligations to complete the annual awards process. On the former, it’s been a work in progress. Early steps included signing and distributing the Criticism Equity Pledge and holding a member survey and a series of town hall meetings. The following year, we amended our bylaws based on recommendations from members and our DEI committee led by Ruben Quesada, which formalized our commitment to centering the voices of marginalized critics. To that end, we held more member events than ever and raised money to cover speaking fees for panelists and the costs of implementing new accessibility measures.
As for the awards, we barreled through a condensed reading period and put on a series of virtual awards events with the help of Wildbound Live in winter 2021, which gained more attendance than our in-person ceremonies and managed to raise about the same amount of money, and we did it all again in winter 2022. In the meantime, we established a new literary achievement award for institutions and founded a prize for translated books with support from anonymous donations.
Occasionally, a publicist reaches out to ask if I’m still in Knoxville, so they can get me a book. I’m reminded of that painful spring, but also of renewal, and of how far we’ve come. A few months before my term ended this past April, I was happy to support Megan Labrise’s bid for president. Her clear communication, enthusiasm, fairness, and vision for what a literary organization could do—as well as her laugh, which is perhaps the greatest laugh in the world—made her a perfect candidate. I’m excited to see where we go.
David Varno is a reviews editor for Publishers Weekly and v-p, online for the National Book Critics Circle.