At first glance, author and critic Charles Finch’s swipe at Brandon Taylor could seem like one writer’s opinion about another writer's work. After reading that Taylor had inked a two-book deal, Finch took to Twitter last weekend, posting, “Lol guess we’re still doing this crap.” But the backlash was swift, not least because Finch is on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and Taylor’s first book, Real Life, is a finalist for the NBCC’s John Leonard Prize, which is awarded to the best first book by an author.
The issue has been compounded by a tumultuous year at the NBCC. The organization’s board came apart last summer amid disagreements over an anti-racism statement. With that bitter fight still fresh for many, Finch’s comment has revived questions about racism at the highest levels of the literary world. Finch is white, and Taylor is Black and queer.
“Regrettably, the comments expressed in the incident … represent a common attitude toward the work of black and queer artists when they attempt to participate in traditions that have typically excluded them,” Taylor wrote in an e-mail to PW.
On Wednesday, Taylor told his 44,000 followers:
I am leaving Twitter because writing requires a lot of vulnerability on my part, and I can’t go to the places I need to go if I log on here and see some Caucasian man disparaging my art. Like, I don’t care what Caucasian men think of my work, but they do be loud, tbh.— Brandon (@blgtylr) February 3, 2021
On Twitter, Finch explained that he was objecting to the premise of one of Taylor’s forthcoming novels, which he erroneously assumed was based on the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Members of the literary community quickly challenged Finch’s rush to judgement, the potential conflict with the NBCC award, and his position on the board. They also questioned the bluntness of his comments, which struck many as begrudging an ascendant Black writer for his success. NBCC president David Varno (who is also fiction reviews editor at PW) wrote that the Leonard Prize is judged by general members of the organization, not by Finch or other board members.
After being contacted by PW on Wednesday afternoon, Finch wrote to say that he had posted two new comments below his original swipe at Taylor. In them he wrote that he had made “a snarky comment” that “doesn’t represent the views on the campus novel or author or publisher of any organization for which I volunteer. I’ll be deleting it after giving people time to see this apology. And truly, I am sorry to people it hurt.” Finch also said that he had sent a private apology to Taylor.
Since the summer's dustup at NBCC, the organization has taken significant steps to change the culture of the organization, including member meetings and steps to encourage a more diverse membership to run for seats on the board. More broadly, however, the incident is indicative of the ways in which the small, insular, and largely white world of most literary awards is ripe for continued issues of this kind. Along with being a book critic and NBCC board member, Finch was one of three judges who created this year’s longlist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Real Life, which was shortlisted for this year’s Booker Prize along with being an NBCC finalist, is not on the PEN/Faulkner list.
The incident is also renewing attention to the ways in which white writers advocate free speech but seem unprepared to deal with the immediate consequences in open and transparent ways. Finch’s account remains private and locked, and has not unblocked people who criticized him during the back-and-forth.
This article has been updated with new information provided by the National Book Critics Circle.