Book critics fail to boot Carlin Romano from board after race controversy

Book critics fail to boot Carlin Romano from board after race controversy

September 3, 2020

A literary critic who found himself in the center of a race-related controversy at the prestigious National Book Critics Circle has managed to hang onto his board seat.

After a contentious two-hour Zoom session on Aug. 24, Carlin Romano prevailed after his detractors failed to obtain a full two-thirds vote necessary to boot him.

Romano had been at the center of a storm raging the normally non-controversial organization for weeks after he pushed back against efforts by a now-resigned member of the board to issue a statement in support of the Black Lives Matter movement that included criticisms of the publishing world.

“I am the first victim of the cancel culture to fight back and win,” Romano, a former book editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer and current teacher at the University of Pennsylvania told Media Ink this week after he was denounced as a ‘racist” by some members in last week’s heated meeting. Romano says he was pushing for an open debate on the topic.

“The free-speech suppressors thought they could denounce me for two hours and walk away with my head on a spear,” said Romano, who said he was given three minutes to refute each of his critics in the Zoom meeting, who were allotted five minutes to explain why they wanted to  give him the old heave-ho.

“I still think the notion that white gatekeepers stifle black voices in book publishing remains absolute nonsense,” Romano said.

Romano tells Media Ink, “I support the truth that Black Lives Matter is a subset of All Lives Matter. I don’t support many of the policies and acts of groups operating under the BLM flag, such as defunding police, harassing people in the streets and taking young children to protests with signs that say “Kill the Pigs!”

That puts him at odds with a statement eventually released by the NBCC’s board, headed by new president David Varno, the fiction editor of Publishers Weekly. Varno took the top job after 14 members of the former board, including then-president Laurie Hertzel, resigned as controversy swirled around how they would address protests over racial injustice over the summer.

Over Romano’s objections, the board has issued this statement: “We stand with and affirmatively support the  work of Black Lives Matter and other grassroots organizations to end white supremacy.” The statement also pointed out out that only 5 percent of the book publishing industry is black and only 4 percent of book reviewers are black.

The turmoil kicked off when Hope Wabuke, a Ugandan-born writer and the sole black woman on the board at the time, quit the organization claiming NBCC was moving too slowly to address what she felt was deep-seated racism in publishing. Her draft said that “white gatekeepers” had for years “stifled black voices” in book publishing.

Following the non-removal vote, NBCC released a terse statement on Aug. 25: “After last night’s nearly two-hour Zoom meeting hosted by Walton Muyumba and attended by over 130 regular voting members, the two-thirds majority (66.6%) required for removal of a director was not attained. Thus Carlin Romano remains on the board until the completion of his term in 2022.”

Varno was among those who pushed for Romano’s removal because of his resistance to Wabuke’s original draft statement to address racism in publishing.

“That behavior was egregiously uncivil, tone-deaf, and hostile. I know some people felt his response was racist, while others felt he was merely taking issue with minutia of the draft. Still others, myself included, felt his response functioned as sabotage and alienated Wabuke, which was cause enough for removal,” Varno told Media Ink.

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