At a special meeting on Monday, roughly 28% of the National Book Critics Circle's membership voted on whether the organization's v-p of grants, Carlin Romano, would remain on its board of directors. The verdict: Romano will see out the remainder of his term, which ends in 2022.
In order for Romano to have been removed from the board, a two-thirds majority of votes—in this case, cast by the 115 members who attended the meeting and the 54 who voted by proxy—would need to have been attained. The final count found 104 votes for removal, or 62%, with 55 votes, or 33%, against removal, in addition to 10 abstentions.
In an email informing the membership of the results of the meeting, the NBCC called proxy voting "a major factor in the outcome," noting that the "meeting votes went 72% for removal, 19% against, with 9% abstaining," while "proxy votes went 39% for removal, 61% against." Multiple sources have confirmed to PW that the deadline for proxy voting was extended, at the last minute, from 6:30 p.m. ET on Monday to 9:00 p.m.
"Many members spoke passionately on both sides, raising a wide variety of issues," the NBCC wrote in the email announcing the results. "The two membership meetings held this past week, both with record attendance, indicate that a new era of member involvement is here. The board is eager to return to its core mission in a new spirit of tolerance, civility, and member participation."
In a statement to PW following the release of the voting results, Romano said he is "grateful to the authentic NBCC critics who understood that you don’t cancel a fellow critic because you disagree with him. But," he continued, "we plainly have a big problem in the NBCC when so many of our current 'book people' members can’t listen to someone who disagrees with them without thinking: 'Enemy, villain, destroy!' There’s a lot of internal work to do to restore the National Book Critics Circle to being worthy of the third word in its name, and to stop it from being an instrument of one-sided ideological censorship."
A Divisive Meeting
While the high number of votes against Romano indicates that the internal tumult at the NBCC is far from over, the special membership meeting still marks the end of an extraordinary period in the organization's 46-year history— one that fits in the recent spate of public reckonings over diversity at literary organizations such as the Romance Writers of America. Following the leaking of an internal email from Romano to fellow board members in June, multiple waves of board members resigned for a number of often-conflicting reasons, leading to a reset of the board in July and the election of a new president, PW fiction reviews editor David Varno, in August.
Romano's email, sent in response to the drafting of a diversity statement by the board, prompted multiple former and current board members, in addition to a number of NBCC members, to decry some of its contents as racist. Romano has adamantly denied those charges, in part by noting his support for the Black Lives Matter movement; in his statement to PW this morning, he challenged the "scores of NBCC’ers who voted against me" to read his book America the Philosophical to "learn about real diversity."
Members of the press, on advice from NBCC's lawyers, were barred from attending the membership meeting, and members were forbidden from speaking to the press about it. Still, some members who attended the meeting spoke to PW on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. At the meeting, each member who wished to speak for or against Romano was given five minutes to speak, and Romano was given three minutes to respond to each member. The members who spoke with PW say those exchanges were often combative. "He said in the meeting that someone was arguing like a 'snowflake,' and he threatened to sue the rank-and-file members," one source said of Romano. (Romano previously pledged to sue members of the NBCC board if they, rather than the NBCC membership, removed him from the board, which would be in violation of NBCC bylaws.) Another confirmed this account, alleging that, while Romano said it was "unlikely" that he would sue everyone who attended the meeting, he noted that all votes would be "revealed in discovery" if he was removed and he decided to sue.
Varno, speaking to PW in his capacity as NBCC president, said he could not comment on what actually happened at the meeting, adding that at this point, he is shifting his focus to helping with the "healing process" for "a divided membership." He did, however, note that the proxy vote deadline was extended at the discretion of the moderators because "the meeting ran a long time, and there were concerns about getting everyone's vote because there were people who couldn't stay for the entire meeting and they were told they could send their vote by proxy." He explained that the extension of the proxy vote did not sway the results, because Romano submitted 25 of those proxy votes to the board himself just before the meeting was scheduled to begin. Those votes, Varno said, represented the vast majority of the proxy votes in Romano's favor.
Varno added that he felt the outcome of the meeting was affected by Romano's efforts to sway fellow members. "Before the meeting, Carlin threatened people with litigation and made people feel afraid to vote for removal and afraid to state why he should be removed," he said. "You have to present cause, and in doing so, you present accusations. He made people feel afraid of doing that with threat of litigation...because all of that becomes evidence in court. Meanwhile, he freely lobbied on his behalf and emailed in bulk many members of the organization to state his case."
Those emails, sources confirm, include a mass email to an unconfirmed number of NBCC members on Monday morning that some members thought was an official NBCC board missive. It wasn't. "Intimidation," Varno added, "was a decisive factor in this outcome."
In response to Varno's comments, Romano denied that he threatened to sue rank-and-file members, adding that he believes Varno's comments "perfectly reflect what I've been fighting against: the idea that if you defend yourself against group denunciations, if you exercise free speech in making your case, you are intimidating and 'harming' those who denounce you. I apologize only for not going meekly to my slaughter."
Following the release of the results, multiple former board members of the NBCC took to Twitter to suggest the formation of new organizations for book critics, suggesting that the problems at the NBCC are far from over. "I think perhaps a new organization for book critics is in order," tweeted Bethanne Patrick. Carolyn Kellogg went further in a tweet of her own: If you are a book critic and want to join a new organization that talks about books and criticism—no shape yet, just a spark—DM me your email."
An Ongoing Crisis
In an email to NBCC membership on Thursday, Varno spoke to the "sharp, perhaps irreparable division between those who are persuaded that this is a free speech issue and those who see it as a matter of toxic, disruptive behavior" at the organization. In so doing, he made clear that, from his view, issues at the NBCC are far from over.
Varno pledged in the email to work on a code of conduct for members of the NBCC board of directors that "will apply to board meetings, internal communications, and communications with regular members. If these new rules are violated," he continued, "there will be consequences that will throttle the director's ability to communicate with the board and the members. I will do everything I can to prevent directors from harassing regular members or making threats to them."
He added: "These rules are not designed to silence opposing views. Personally, I welcome opposing views and hearty debates, and I have not found any of my fellow directors to feel otherwise."
The email explicitly mentions Romano on several occasions, including a description of a moment at the special meeting, previously undisclosed, which, Varno said, "saw Romano refuse to withdraw the threat of litigation against regular members when asked whether or not he would sue them individually based on the outcome of the meeting." He added: "That was unconscionable, and I have already communicated to him that he is on notice pending adoption of a new code of conduct."
Varno also addressed rumblings among former NBCC directors, NBCC members, and others about forming a new organization for book critics. "I am deeply dismayed to see that we've come to this, and hope we can all continue to work together on a shared vision for the NBCC's future, between the work being done by the board's new Reform working group and the plans shared by regular members," Varno said. "I want you all to know that I will do everything I can to make sure this organization is a space of inclusion and support, not one of unshakeable hierarchy and endless, thankless dues-paying."
Responding to Varno's email, Romano flatly denied a number of Varno's charges. "I have not harassed or threatened anyone," he wrote. "I have never threatened to sue individual NBCC members, and a record of the meeting confirms that I didn't do so at the meeting. I did not disseminate misinformation. I disseminated facts and information to try to bring transparency to recent NBCC machinations."
Characterizing the attempt at removal as part of a "suppression-of-speech policy," Romano wrote that "the rump, minority faction of members seeking my removal thought they could stack the meeting with their activists, forgo producing any statement outlining their charges against me—that would have required more concentration than a tweet—and railroad me off the board," arguing that those seeking his removal were "angry that I did produce and share a comprehensive statement refuting their charges. They did not anticipate that a majority of NBCC members would blow off their show trial, and that enough of them would vote against removal to foil the planned execution."
He added: "David should look up the meaning of 'throttle.' It means 'to suppress, to strangle, to choke.' Etymologically, it comes from 'to strangle.' I'll let NBCC members decide whether David's fierce desire to control the speech of others is obvious in his letter. It will be up to the board, not David, to decide whether we're going to be the National Stranglers Circle."
This article has been updated with further information and for clarity.