In the culmination of a monthslong drama, the book critic Carlin Romano was not removed from his seat on the board of the National Book Critics Circle, after a vote on Monday night.
Back in June, the organization imploded following the efforts of a group of board members to draft a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At the center of the drama was a board member named Carlin Romano, who took issue with the group’s statement of support. In a flurry of emails, leaked on Twitter and sent to the press, Romano described the statement as “absolute nonsense” and accused the board of shutting down “true critical discussion.” In the midst of all that, a flurry of board members resigned, some in protest of Romano’s behavior, others in protest of the leaked emails, which they perceived as a violation of privacy. Many board members who remained felt that the only way forward would be to remove Romano from a leadership position, a proposition that turned out to be complicated, not only because of the organization’s bylaws, but also because once Romano learned of efforts to remove him, he threatened to sue each member of the board individually. Over a two-hour Zoom call this week, more than a hundred members gathered to debate Romano’s behavior and determine whether he should be removed from the board.
According to several people on the call, the meeting was tense and combative. Each member who wished to speak was allotted five minutes, and then Romano was given three minutes to respond. Some called him a bully and said that his threats of legal action alone constituted cause for removal. Threatening to sue “nonprofit, volunteer board members is egregious,” pointed out one lifetime member voting for his removal. “It is appalling, it is unprofessional.”
Romano, in response, suggested that the threat of a lawsuit was not such a big deal. “People go to a court for justice,” he said, shaking his head. “There is nothing horrible about suing.”
Those supporting Romano mostly spoke of the threat to free speech and the plague of cancel culture. Most who spoke in support of Romano were white men over the age of 40. One described the board’s behavior as “a stampede in the name of political correctness” that appeared to be “shutting out diverse opinions.” Another spoke of his concern about “a party line being established, where you can say certain things but not others, and you can’t disagree with the board.”
In an email sent out to members the morning of the meeting, Romano framed the debate in similar terms, describing himself as a victim of political oppression, and his fight to remain a board member as part of a long “tradition of heretics willing to speak truth to intolerant others.”
“There’s a group of white men who seem to powerfully feel that they are the victims here, that they don’t have a place in the world anyone,” one member who attended the meeting said of the proceedings. “I was struck,” the member continued, “in the difference in what people really think the job of critics are — stirring things up, like Christopher Hitchens or whoever, versus engaging in good discourse.”
As the meeting pressed toward its conclusion, Romano continued to raise the threat of suing those who were against him. “He straight up said our votes would be discoverable in court proceedings and implied that he would sue people who voted against him,” tweeted Roxane Gay, who was on the Zoom call. “I have not stopped thinking about it since.”
Two-thirds were needed to remove Romano, but in the end, just 62 percent, or 104 members, voted for his removal. Most of Romano’s votes were submitted in advance of the meeting, by proxy. In an email to Vulture, Romano said that he was “grateful to the authentic NBCC critics who understood that you don’t cancel a fellow critic because you disagree with him.” He continued: “But 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.”
“To him, this is about Democracy and the state of the modern intellectual or something,” said one member who declined to use his name out of fear of being sued. “When really he’s an angry man who can’t apologize.”
Many on Twitter seemed to agree with Romano in his assessment that the NBCC has a “big problem.” Over the course of the following day, several members tweeted about the possibility of starting a new organization for book critics. Romano, for his part, will remain on the board at least until 2022, when his term is up.
*An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that Romano would be up for reelection in 2022. In fact, his two-term limit will be up at that point.