The turmoil that roiled the National Book Critics Circle, one of publishing's pre-eminent awards bodies and institutions, last week continued throughout the weekend and into Monday morning as concerns over matters of race and privacy continue to split the organization's board of directors. As of Monday morning, at least 13 members have resigned from the typically 24-member board.
The situation at the NBCC began last Thursday, following a week-long attempt by a working committee of board members to draft a statement in response to the Black Lives Matter movement and in support of writers and critics of color. Before the statement was approved, Ugandan American poet, essayist, and writer Hope Wabuke, who had led the effort to draft the statement, resigned from the board. In a series of tweets, Wabuke explained her decision and revealed a series of internal emails pertaining to the discussion around the drafting of the statement.
The first of those emails, sent by former NBCC president and current v-p of grants Carlin Romano the night before the working group's statement was to be finalized, questioned, and in some cases rejected, the presence of white supremacy, institutional racism, erasure of BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) authors, and white gatekeeping in the publishing community. Later emails, including one sent by then–NBCC president Laurie Hertzel thanking Romano for his comments, were also released in the thread.
"I resign from @bookcritics because racism," Wabuke tweeted. "It is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain." Wabuke did not respond to requests for additional comment by press time.
Wabuke's decision to leak the internal documents effectively split the NBCC board. Not long after, five additional members of the board resigned: Hertzel, Victoria Chang, John McWhorter, Connie Ogle, and Katherine A. Powers. NBCC board members who spoke to PW on conditions of anonymity said that of those five, four, including Hertzel, did so in response to what they saw as Wabuke's violation of NBCC board policy, which prohibits the discussion of internal board matters publicly. Other board members, such as former L.A. Times books editor Carolyn Kellogg and the NBCC's v-p of membership, Richard Z. Santos, publicly supported Wabuke in her decision on Twitter.
Later on Thursday, a working committee comprised of board members at the NBCC released the statement it had drafted, as finalized on June 10, before Romano voiced his disagreement with certain of its premises. The statement released Thursday makes several pledges, including: the establishment of a diversity and inclusion committee, to be headed by a NBCC board member who will be named v-p of diversity and inclusion at the board's next meeting; the establishment of a social justice initiative through that committee, with "the goal of exploring how best to create immediate and ongoing support of people, communities and organizations that are affected by police violence and systemic racism, centering black and brown voices, headed by NBCC board member Ismail Muhammad"; conducting a survey of NBCC members to compile and release membership demographic information and working with Richard Santos to diversity the group's membership; and more.
A change in direction
Since the release of that statement, the situation has only gotten more complex. According to NBCC board members who spoke to PW on condition of anonymity, following the resignations, one of the board members who resigned still had access to the organization's website, and used that access to remove the names of the six board members who had resigned by that point from the site. On Saturday, Hertzel's resignation, which had previously been sent to the board, was sent in an email to NBCC membership via the organization's official newsletter and with NBCC letterhead.
"As members of the NBCC board were trying to work out the wording of a statement in support of Black Lives Matter and against racism, especially in our own realm of publishing, private exchanges were made public on Twitter, which made it impossible to continue with this discussion in good faith," Hertzel wrote. "I can only speak for myself when I say that such a breach of confidence precludes the sort of deliberations that are essential to the NBCC's mission as a critical organization."
Hertzel told PW she did not send her resignation letter to the membership on board stationery but, rather, that someone on the board "someone sent it to the full membership within minutes" of her emailing it to the board. As of time of publication, the NBCC continues to operate without a president.
Asked by PW if she believed Wabuke's decision to make the internal emails public represented a graver threat to the NBCC and its mission than the contents of the leaked emails, Hertzel replied: "This was part of a lengthy ongoing confidential board discussion, conducted by email. It was my job to keep the conversation on track and listen to everyone, even when they said things I disagree with. The leaked emails represented a tiny fraction of the discussion we were having about a very important document, our anti-racist statement, and were published on social media even as that discussion was continuing." She added: "There are individual actors and personal histories at play, which I'm not at liberty to discuss. But finally, this is all so much bigger than those individuals, and we shouldn't let them distract us from ensuring that diverse voices are included and acknowledged in the literary world."
On Sunday, an extraordinary email sent to NBCC membership and signed "the NBCC Board of Directors" briefly outlined the events of the past week and included a copy of the organization's bylaws. (Previously, the bylaws were unavailable to rank-and-file NBCC members, according to members and former members of the NBCC board; only one mention of the bylaws is made on the NBCC's website, on the page explaining to members how to join the board.) Acknowledging that the board had "received many messages from current members asking about the available next steps," the email effectively instructed its membership on how it could remove a sitting board member, presumably referring to Romano.
"In response to specific questions about how to remove a sitting Board Member, please consult Article IV, Section 10. You will see that Regular Members are authorized to call a special meeting and an election to remove a Board Member," the email read. According to the organization's bylaws, the removal of a sitting board member by the board is prohibited, effectively tying the board's hands in circumstances such as these.
In comments to PW, Romano said that "a rump section of the Board, without consulting with the whole Board, has sent out a statement to the membership tonight. I haven't received it despite being an NBCC member as well as a Board member." An NBCC board member said that that email was drafted by Santos, the NBCC's membership director, and sent in the board's name.
The NBCC's next board meeting is scheduled for June 17 at which the board "will discuss our next steps as an organization and will be putting into action the concrete steps outlined in our Anti-Racism Pledge" in addition to settling on a date and time for a virtual open house for members "to discuss issues of tolerance and racial justice," according to the June 14 email. At this point, however, the question is whether any board members will remain to hold that meeting.
An ideological battle
As of Monday morning, at least another seven board members have resigned from the board: Charles Finch, Megan Labrise, and Muhammad all resigned on Sunday, with Muhammad's resignation leaving the proposed social justice initiative without a leader. Kellogg, Jessica Loudis, v-p of tech David Varno (disclosure: Varno is PW's fiction reviews editor), and one further former member, who requested anonymity, all resigned on Monday.
The members were not united in their reasons for resigning, or in making those reasons public. Some, according to NBCC board members, resigned over the sending of Herzel's that email. Others resigned in support of Wabuke, or in opposition to Romano. Still others did not give a reason for their resignation.
"I've remained on [the board] this long and stayed silent in public because I and the other people who have been working with Hope are still trying to execute the plans that we set forth in the statement and we're trying to salvage what we could—but I don't want to be seen as co-signing Laurie's message," Muhammad told PW following his resignation on Sunday. "I think it's important that people, instead of resigning membership, keep in mind that members are people who vote for the board. I want to encourage people to vote against some of the key points I saw in Carlin's email for sure. I want people on the board who don't think the way Carlin thinks."
In a statement explaining her resignation, Kellogg wrote that Hertzel attempted to "dissolve the board" following Wabuke's tweets, adding that "the board was unable to be transparent about what was happening" over the course of last week, leading outside observers to believe that "the exodus was in support of Hope when it was in opposition to her." (Hertzel disputed Kellogg's characterization, saying she "did suggest that the board be dissolved because I didn't see any way forward," but "Carolyn said no. And that was where the matter was left," adding: "I don't even know how I might attempt to dissolve the board.")
Romano, Kellogg said, "has threatened to sue the organization and shouted down a new board member on a Zoom call. He has refused to resign." (Romano confirmed that he "alerted the Board I might sue it if I'm voted off the Board in violation of our bylaws and commitment to free discussion," but denied shouting down the new board member, saying: "We talked over each other at one point. That happens with almost everyone on the Board at some point.")
Varno, in his statement, said that the NBCC's "system of confidentiality has failed the organization. Let the board speak confidentially about books and debate their varied opinions before working toward a consensus that can be shared publicly. But when it comes to matters of needed systemic change, so that the boardroom of the NBCC might become a more welcoming place for the views of BIPOC, not simply their presence, those discussions must happen out in the open."
In her resignation email, Loudis wrote: "To be clear, I am not doing so because of Carlin's letter, which I strongly disagreed with, but because it is abundantly clear that the NBCC lacks the institutional culture or capability to facilitate civil discourse within respectful boundaries. I do not believe free speech extends to the right to bully and dismiss one's colleagues; nor do I think this kind of behavior should be tolerated."
Romano, responding to the criticism, reiterates that his email on Wednesday night came late because he had "refrained from commenting because I didn't want to distract the drafters from their mission, and felt I was out of step with them on some issues. I also made clear that I had no problem with the statement being sent out over the Board's name, if the Board voted for it, even if I disagreed with some of its assertions."
In response to Wabuke's tweets saying his email exhibited "racism and anti-blackness," Romano asserted: "I'm not racist and I'm not anti-black. Quite the contrary. I just don't check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims." He added: "A few Board members in recent years have sought to turn the Board, for decades committed to fair-minded judging of books from every political stripe, into a 'No Free Thought' zone, an ideologically biased tool for their own politics. In my opinion, they oppose true critical discussion. Good riddance to any of them who resign—the NBCC will be healthier without them. I'll attempt to stay on the Board, despite concerted opposition, in the hope that I can help NBCC return to its earlier, better self."
The reckoning at NBCC is part of an industry-wide response to the lack of diversity in the book business that has been brewing for some time, but boiled over earlier this year in a similar manner at the Romance Writers of America and in very public discourse over the publication of Jeanine Cummins's controversial American Dirt. These issues returned to the forefront of book business conversation over the past few weeks, following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the protests that have erupted around the country and world in response to police violence and racial discrimination against black people. Last week, book workers across the business stepped off the job for a day as part of a collective action protesting racism, while an open letter signed by more than 1,800 people criticizing how the Poetry Foundation is run has resulted in the organization's staff and board pledging significant change.
This article has been updated for clarity and with further information.