Critical Mess: The NBCC Implosion

The National Book Critics’ Circle’s old-guard members refuse to roll with the times

On June 11, Hope Wabuke, at the time a board member of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC), tweeted excerpts from an email sent to the board by another member. This email criticized a draft antiracism statement suggested by Wabuke and others for the NBCC to release in the wake of the nationwide protests around George Floyd’s death. Since Wabuke’s initial tweets, more than half of the board has resigned. Some members have left in support of Wabuke’s frustration with NBCC, and others in protest of Wabuke’s making public an email that was supposedly internal and thus too private for Twitter.

Vulture and Publishers Weekly have catalogued the ins and outs of the NBCC crisis. The big picture: Wabuke and others have noted that NBCC has been unwelcoming to critics of color and has perpetuated the general whiteness of the publishing-industrial complex, rather than working to upend it. Long-serving white NBCC board members do not believe this is the case, nor perhaps that structural racism is a thing. This long-simmering conflict has exploded due to Wabuke tweeting the email.

I’ve been a member of NBCC for about two years and have derived a handful of concrete benefits from my membership. The roundup newsletters they send out every week have often included my work, and they have tweeted my reviews multiple times. I think that has made my name a little better known in the small, terrifying world of book criticism. I also have access to a detailed spreadsheet with contact and pay information for various book review sections at major publications. Very occasionally, this information has helped me place work.

Mainly, I joined NBCC to feel that I’m part of a cadre of people who share my values as a book critic: a belief in the strength and power of literature, a desire to participate in an accountability process that’s both sensible and fair, and a wish to know and understand the book world better. But the implosion at NBCC has stirred grave doubt in me that the organization actually possesses those values.

Excellent, forward-thinking members of the literary community, critics who have spent their entire young careers in the brave new world of bite-sized internet content and shrinking arts sections, have resigned. The old guard, critics who hold jobs that still exist due to grandfathering, and will no longer exist once they vacate their positions (via death or disgrace), have hung on grimly. These trends have helped me to understand that NBCC is just as susceptible to rot and complacency as any long-operating arts organization.

And it caused me to take a hard look at NBCC and realize, with help from a critic friend much smarter than I, that as an organization it has done little to aid up-and-coming critics, which should be its lifeblood, or to advance the cause of book criticism generally. Its yearly prizes help individual books, not critics; its events and meetings retrench the dominance of New York publishing, an emphasis which looks to the past, not the future; and its other benefits are so small and scattered that members cannot expect comprehensive help from NBCC in establishing or promoting their careers.

Mentees who don’t need mentoring

As an example, let me use myself. (Please forgive the egocentrism.) I applied to NBCC’s Emerging Critic program in each of the first two years of my membership. Indeed, I joined the organization partially in order to apply. I wanted to become a book critic, but didn’t really know how to do it, and I thought the program would help. I didn’t get in. When I looked at a list of those who did, I was a little surprised. Most of them seemed to be not emerging, but established. Several had already had their critical work in major publications, or held editorships, which meant they possessed enough expertise in criticism to edit the reviews of others. What help could NBCC offer them? What mentorship did they need?

By the time a third application year rolled around for me, I had placed my work in the Washington Post, the Times Literary Supplement, the Houston Chronicle, NPR, the Guardian, and other major outlets. I had become the book reviews editor at Barrelhouse and a monthly reviewer at Locus, and I had published something like 150 book reviews in two years. I’d met nearly all the goals I’d set out with when I joined NBCC. So I did not apply for the Emerging Critic program in that third year. I’d already emerged just fine on my own. I could have used their help in the first year, or the second. But they seemed to accept into the program people who were then where I was now: people who had already earned success, not people who sought the opportunity to succeed. The program seemed misnamed.

I’m not arguing that the winning candidates were less deserving, nor am I bitter about not being accepted, or anything as petty as that. I’m saying that my story is part of a pattern. NBCC serves critics who are already successful before it serves people who are trying to learn the craft, and it rewards those who know the game rather than teaching new players the rules.

An organization as musty as old books

These mechanisms are clear enough in the recent implosion. The old guard of the board was angrier that Wabuke published “an internal email” on Twitter than it was about the racism and appeasement contained in that email—angrier about whistle-blowing than about the behavior that merited the alarm. Wabuke, and Ismail Muhammed, and a handful of critics of an age and attitude NBCC desperately needs in order to stay relevant, have resigned from the board. Critics who have stuck around for decades despite hideous behavior and encroaching irrelevance are still there. They are playing by old rules, and are being rewarded, while those who try to join the game and open it up for other players have been hustled to the door.

This is not the behavior of an organization that will survive changing times. NBCC has done little to respond to how book criticism has evolved in recent decades. The decentralization of big publishing, positive-reviews-only section policies, proliferating book podcasts, the gift and curse of Goodreads —these issues are huge and messy and not going away, and NBCC has not taken relevant action on any of them. It has barely altered how it operates despite changes all around it.

That general strategy, if it can be called such, has revealed itself in microcosm this month. This whole mess began when an established white critic pushed back against a proposed antiracism pledge in a national moment when even Fruit Gushers has posted an antiracism pledge. He may be able to hang on to his board position with his eyes closed to the world, but NBCC should not allow men like him, with no vision, to steer its ship.

Katharine Coldiron

Katharine Coldiron's work has appeared in Ms., the Times Literary Supplement, BUST, the Rumpus, and elsewhere.

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