The National Book Critics Circle Has Imploded

In the past week, more than half of the board has resigned in a series of events one member described as “bizarre and bloody in an end-of-a-Tarantino-movie way.” Photo: Jeff Greenberg / Getty Images

A week ago, as protesters rallied around the world against systemic racism and police brutality, 12 board members of the National Book Critics Circle, an organization of some 800 critics that gives out a number of annual awards, began to draft a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Noting that the publishing industry has long been overwhelmingly white from top to bottom, they wrote of their “culpability in this system of erasure” of black and indigenous voices from the cultural conversation and outlined a series of steps that their organization could take to support critics of color and amplify their voices, such as expanding the organization’s mentorship program and establishing a diversity committee. Just 30 percent of last year’s winners and finalists were writers of color, they wrote: “We can and must do better.”

“It was really exciting,” Ismail Muhammad, a black writer and critic who helped write the statement, told me. “We were hoping to change ourselves and then model something for the entire industry.”

Those hopes faded as quickly as they materialized. Just as the group was about to share the statement with the world, their organization began to fracture and then implode, joining a number of cultural institutions across America that have erupted into conflict in recent weeks over issues of race, power, and structural inequality. Over the past several days, more than half of the National Book Critics Circle’s 24 board members, which had included six people of color, have resigned in a flurry of recriminations over racism, privacy concerns, and political correctness. Some who remain are uncertain whether or how the organization will continue to exist at all.

The fissures in the NBCC first appeared last Wednesday night, after the organization’s president, Laurie Hertzel, who is white, ran the statement by several board members who hadn’t participated in writing it, asking them to weigh in, on an email thread with the entire board. One board member, Carlin Romano, said he disagreed with some of the claims in the letter but didn’t want to “distract the great majority of the Board from its mission.” Nevertheless, he went on to detail his objections to a number of those claims, dismissing the statement’s fundamental premise as “absolute nonsense.” A white critic and former board president, he took issue with the idea that the publishing business operated with “the full benefits of white supremacy and institutional racism” and that “white gatekeeping had been working to stifle black voices at every level of our industry,” as the statement contended. These assertions, he argued, amounted to “calumnies on multiple generations of white publishers and editors” who had fought to publish authors of color. “I resent the idea that whites in the book publishing and literary world are an oppositional force that needs to be assigned to reeducation camps,” he wrote.

In her reply, Hertzel reassured Romano that she’d always appreciate his perspective. It “shines unlike anyone else’s,” she wrote, adding, “your objections are all valid, of course.”

When Hope Wabuke, a Ugandan-American author who had suggested writing the statement in the first place, read this exchange between Romano and Hertzel, she was outraged. The following morning, she posted screenshots of the group’s emails on Twitter and, in an accompanying thread, announced her resignation from the board. As a long-standing board member, she wrote, Romano had a powerful say in determining who received the organization’s annual prizes and which books were reviewed, and she criticized Hertzel for failing to call him out. Describing a deep-seated culture of racism and anti-blackness at the organization, she added, “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 a request for comment.)

A wave of resignations followed, which in turn unleashed a second wave, and a third. Some members left in protest of Wabuke’s decision to air the board’s business on Twitter and because they felt she hadn’t accurately represented the organization, while others stepped down because they felt that those members were more concerned about confidentiality than about racism. A third group resigned because they had simply lost faith in the NBCC’s ability to find its way out of the mess. As one board member put it, the sequence of events was “bizarre and bloody in an end-of-a-Tarantino-movie way.” Amid the backlash, the board posted the statement on the NBCC’s website, with a note acknowledging the resignations at the top. As of this writing, only ten of the 24 board members remain. None are black. Only three black critics sat on the board to begin with, and all have stepped down.

Among the members who resigned in protest of Wabuke’s Twitter thread was the president, Hertzel. She stepped down hours after the emails were made public. “As a board, we need to be able to deliberate in confidence and with trust,” she told me. “I did not see any way forward to serve on a board where confidentiality had been breached.” Still, she regretted how she handled Romano’s email. The board had been set to vote unanimously in favor of the statement, she said; by flattering Romano, she had hoped to keep him from “derailing the discussion and torpedoing the vote.”

“Carlin and I have a bad history,” she told me. “He spent many days torpedoing my reputation and my ethics in a series of board emails back when I was running for president. Since then, I have tried to treat him with kid gloves so it could not be said that I was retaliating for his personal attacks on me.”

Romano, who once made headlines for writing a review in which he imagined raping the author of the book, has intermittently sat on the board since the mid-’90s. According to nearly a dozen current and former members, he has developed a reputation in the organization as a bully. Muhammad, a board member for the past four years, told me, “For as long as I’ve been on the board, Carlin has always exhibited intolerant, bullying behavior, accusing other board members of lacking a sense of ethics and denigrating authors, trying to impose his own narrow ideas of what literary narratives are, or what accounts for criticism.”

Romano declined to speak on the phone for an interview, but he sent along a statement. In response to Wabuke’s assertion that his email displayed racism and anti-blackness, he wrote, “It did nothing of the sort. 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.”

Over the weekend, as the board continued to disintegrate, some members hoped they could salvage the situation by removing Romano. But according to the bylaws, the entire membership must vote to remove a board member. When he learned of discussions to depose him, Romano fired off a series of emails threatening to sue each member of the board “in personam,” which, as he pointed out, “means that no one can easily cover your individual legal fees.” “I have lots of energy for this, and it will cost me nothing,” he wrote.

“It became clear that Carlin cannot be made to leave the board — he is shameless,” Muhammad said of the weekend’s back and forth. “At this point, he is sitting on a throne of skulls.”

Yahdon Israel, a black writer and critic who served on the NBCC board for three years and resigned in 2019, told me he was not surprised when he learned of the current controversy. His tenure there, he said, was marked with microaggressions and gaslighting. When proposing books to nominate for prizes, he said, “I had to frame the argument in the historical lens of a white book. If there’s a black author I want to nominate, I have to contextualize that author outside of her literary tradition.” In 2018, he urged the group to award its lifetime-achievement prize to Alice Walker. But before the board arrived at a decision, Walker publicly praised the writer David Icke, a proponent of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, prompting the NBCC board to quickly remove Walker from its internal list of nominees. Although Israel agreed with the decision, he was dismayed, he said, by the “swiftness” with which it happened and the lack of conversation around it, which he saw as a sign that the board had never taken Walker seriously as a candidate and had only included her on the list in the first place to humor him. Frustrated by what he described as an insidious racist culture, he resigned from the board.

Muhammad, for his part, did not think the purported racism at the organization was pervasive but did feel the board’s racial makeup posed a cultural problem. “Because the board is as white as it is, people are not required to reflect on how their thinking or taste, or the ideas of narrative, are structured by their whiteness,” he said. “And it can isolate people of color.”

Each of the black board members who stepped down did so for different reasons. John McWhorter, an associate professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, stressed that he did not support Wabuke. Like Romano, he disputed the idea that the publishing industry is plagued by racism. “The way he said it was an unideal,” McWhorter said. “He was not being a modern person in the way he responded.” Still, McWhorter added, “all racial disparities are not due to bigotry or even structural barriers.”

He left, he said, because he felt like he no longer fit into the culture of the board. “There’s an idea that we’re supposed to subscribe to these days. That to disagree with a black person’s views about something having to do with race is racist,” he told me. “I don’t subscribe to that.”

Muhammad decided to leave after Hertzel put out a statement over the weekend, shared with an AP reporter and which someone sent to the entire NBCC membership, denouncing Wabuke’s leaked emails without discussing it first with the rest of the board.* “What Laurie says does not reflect solely on her. It reflects on the entire organization, and I am flabbergasted as to how this dynamic was not taken into consideration before her message was sent,” he wrote in email to the board announcing his own resignation. “A message that did not acknowledge the structural deficits of the board as it existed before Thursday is unacceptable.”

When we spoke over the weekend, Muhammad told me he was feeling depressed about the organization’s future. But on Monday, after he’d resigned, he felt more optimistic. “The saga is bleak,” he said. “But we got nearly half of the board to join in the work of intense soul-searching
and actual reform, and that was heartening to me, and we got nearly the entire board to vote in the affirmative of our plan. I think that is very meaningful. And I don’t think that the fact that this effort collapsed is a sign that the change can’t be made. This shows that there is a pathway to change.” He remains a member of the organization and looks forward, he said, to electing new board members: “Now people are aware the organization needs new life and people with a new vision.”

*Clarification: An earlier version of this piece implied that Laurie Hertzel sent her statement to the entire NBCC membership. In fact, it was forwarded to the full membership without her knowledge.

*A version of this article appears in the June 22, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The National Book Critics Circle Has Imploded