Amid mass departures, book critics board seeks to diversify

June 18, 2020 - 8:09 pm

NEW YORK (AP) — The National Book Critics Circle, founded 46 years ago, is seeking to reinvent itself.

Fifteen of its 24 board members, including the president, have resigned over a dispute arising from its attempt to draft a statement in support of Black Lives Matter. On Thursday, those remaining on the board announced several changes, notably efforts to diversify leadership that long has been predominantly white.

“The NBCC Board is committed to reimagining the entire organization and restructuring in a way that modernizes the NBCC and demonstrates a clear commitment to racial and social justice,” the announcement reads. “We will not move forward as an organization unless we have met the ideals we aspire to.”

The board has named an acting president, Jane Ciabattari, and announced that several of the awards it presents annually will be postponed or canceled until the NBCC makes “satisfactory progress” in diversity.

Last week, board member Hope Wabuke tweeted a contentious email exchange with NBCC president Laurie Hertzel and fellow board member Carlin Romano, a former NBCC president. Romano had objected to parts of the NBCC board's proposed anti-racism statement, notably that “white gatekeepers” in publishing “stifle black voices.” Romano, one of the remaining board members, responded that many black writers had benefited from “good-willed white editors and publishers” and that he had seen “far more of white people helping black writers than of black people helping white writers.”

The email revealed strong divisions within the board, amplified by the reasons so many departed. Wabuke was the first to announce she was leaving, saying that changing the NBCC from within had proved impossible. Others, including Hertzel, expressed unhappiness that Wabuke had released private correspondence.

Asked about Thursday's statement, Romano told the AP: "I don’t agree with every little thing in it, but on the whole it strikes a very good tone and I support it.” Ciabattari says that she has no desire to remain president beyond an interim basis and that her goal was "to facilitate a discussion for the purpose of creating a new board in collaboration with the membership.”

The fallout at the NBCC continues a yearlong industry trend, with the board members of organizations ranging from the Poetry Foundation to the Romance Writers of America leaving amid criticisms over lack of diversity.

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