Book critic wins cancel culture showdown
Carlin Romano refuses to plead guilty to systemic racism
After months of infighting at the National Book Critics Circle, a member who refused to endorse an anti-racism statement will keep his seat on the board of directors—for now.
Established in 1974, the NBCC is one of the country’s most prominent and influential literary organizations. Its annual awards ceremony receives wide coverage in the mainstream media, and winners often end up on bestseller lists.
In early June, the organization followed countless other cultural institutions and drafted a statement to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement. The statement claimed the NBCC benefited from white supremacy. It called on members to “admit [their] culpability in this system of erasure” and commit to a new social justice initiative led by a diversity and inclusion committee. Vice President of Grants Carlin Romano took issue with the statement.
Romano is a professor, Pulitzer Prize finalist, and longtime book critic who’s no stranger to high-profile literary skirmishes. A fellow critic once described him as “half philosopher, half gonzo journalist,” his literary heroes, “more Harlem than Harvard.” When legal scholar Jonathan Turley wrote a blog post about him, Romano sent Turley a thank you message that included a long list of Turley’s grammatical errors.
When NBCC board President Laurie Hertzel requested feedback on a draft of the anti-racism statement, Romano replied that the idea that “white gatekeeping stifles black voices at every level of our industry” was “absolute nonsense.” He dismissed accusations of systemic racism in the publishing industry, saying, “Many of the writers cited in the letter’s own list would never have been published if not for ecumenical, good-willed white editors and publishers who fought for the publication of black writers.” He also cited census numbers to cast doubt on arguments that NBCC prize lists underrepresent minority authors.
Hertzel said she found Romano’s objections valid, angering board members who initiated the statement. They posted screenshots of the internal conversations to social media. The statement’s main author, Ugandan American writer Hope Wabuke, announced her departure from the organization for her personal safety. “It is not possible to change these organizations from within, and the backlash will be too dangerous for me to remain,” she tweeted. Within a few days, more than half the board, including Hertzel, had resigned.
In the weeks that followed, the board scheduled a special meeting to vote on Romano’s future as a member. His opponents launched a petition asking his employer, the University of Pennsylvania, to fire him. NPR characterized his comments as racist. The NBCC posted information on its website about calls to remove him—all to no effect. “It became clear that Carlin cannot be made to leave the board—he is shameless,” said Ismail Muhammad, a fellow critic who helped write the NBCC statement. “At this point, he is sitting on a throne of skulls.”
To Romano, refusing to give in was a matter of honor. And liberty.
“I’m not racist and I’m not anti-black. … I just don’t check my mind at the door when people used to operating in echo chambers make false claims,” he told the website Vulture in a statement. “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.”
Romano sent out mass emails lobbying on his own behalf. He made it known he would drag the issue out in court, warning, “I have lots of energy for this, and it will cost me nothing.” Free speech organizations such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education publicly backed him.
“An organization nominally devoted to literary expression, NBCC should be interested in preserving a culture of free speech,” FIRE wrote days before the vote. “And whatever structural decisions it makes with respect to its board rules or makeup, it has started down this course because some of its members want to punish Romano for his questions.”
Whether by threats or appeals to intellectual freedom, Romano’s tenacity paid off. On Aug. 24, 62 percent of voting NBCC members elected to remove him, just shy of the two-thirds majority required.
Still, new NBCC President David Varno implied Romano’s fate remained uncertain, sending out an email saying Romano is already “on notice” for violating a new code of conduct that is being drafted.
After learning he’d won the vote, Romano expressed gratitude for his supporters who “understood that you don’t cancel a fellow critic because you disagree with him.” And he acknowledged that while he won the battle, the war might not be over.