June 18, 2020
Book critics org roiled by race controversy; prez, board members resign
by Mike Lindgren
The divisions and dissension that have rocked the publishing world over the last two weeks have spread even unto the normally staid world of book reviewers. When a dispute over the wording of a National Book Critics Circle statement in support of Black Lives Matter went public, it triggered a wave of resignations that have roiled the august organization.
Founded in the legendary bar at the Algonquin Hotel in 1973, the NBCC is best known for its annual literary awards—a kind of nerd Grammys, if you will—and perhaps second-best known for the consistently well-lubricated annual awards after-party it throws. Like many literary organizations, it rushed to put out a statement in response to the racial unrest that has swept the nation in the past two weeks.
The kerfuffle, whose narrative complexity is roughly equivalent to, say, a history of the Trojan Wars, began when an internal debate over the wording of the statement of support was made public by dissenting board member Hope Wabuke, who then resigned from the board. (For a fuller and more explicit account of the contretemps, see John Maher’s piece in industry rag Publishers Weekly, from Monday.)
Wabuke’s resignation set off an acrimonious and wide-ranging debate about the role of the NBCC in addressing issues of social and racial justice. When the dust had settled, at least thirteen members of the board, including president Laurie Hertzel, had resigned. Although “the members,” Maher notes, “were not united in their reasons for resigning, or in making those reasons public,” several of them did so explicitly in support of Wabuke.
A letter to members—including our managing editor, who in a prior incarnation was a book reviewer and remains an NBCC member—stated that the board will be discussing “our next steps as an organization, and will be putting into action the concrete steps outlined in our Anti-Racism Pledge.”
Michael Lindgren is the Managing Editor at Melville House.