On Board

Today I’m heading up to New York City for a batch of meetings and events hosted by the National Book Critics Circle. I was elected to the NBCC’s board earlier this year, and since then a few people have let me know how they feel about the organization. Some of what they say is positive, some of it’s negative, but in either case the common theme is that they’re not quite sure why it exists. What’s the use of a nonprofit for book critics when their authority has eroded and the Internet has made it easy for bookish people to congregate, support each others’ writing, and celebrate the books they like best?

The NBCC isn’t unique among nonprofits in that regard. I don’t mention it much here, but my employer is in the business of helping people improve their nonprofit associations—most (if not all) of which are in the same boat as the NBCC, struggling to figure out how to be meaningful to their members as the Internet finds new and exciting ways to eat their lunch. The NBCC doesn’t do a lot of the things most associations do—it doesn’t have a staff, or lobby politicians, or produce its own magazine, or run a certification program. (I’m trying to guess how many hospital visits would result from even suggesting a Certified Book Critic credential.) But whether you’re in the American Society of Widget Makers or the NBCC, there’s a pervasive worry that the recession is going to eradicate most of your reason for being and some random dude’s website is going to take whatever’s left. The NBCC can at least take some comfort in the fact that it’s not the only organization wringing its hands over this.

I’ve wound up geeking out on association work more than I expected to in the past year, which is part of the reason why I decided to run for the NBCC board. Run right, it’s an admirable culture. Association folk are easy to like because they tend to be enthusiasts for their professions without being craven businesspeople; at heart, they’re just people who really like their work and want other people to like it too. So I became a little more of a joiner than is perhaps dignified for a reader: I think book criticism is important and interesting, and I’d like other people to think it’s important and interesting too. And though there’s no shortage of places to talk about books, there’s no national organization with the explicit purpose of supporting good book criticism and pointing out its value to a wide audience. I know some people think the NBCC falls short of that mission. I know lots of people think that a bunch of critics getting together to pick their favorite books is an elitist activity that has nothing to do with how people really read and talk about books these days. But the mission itself has value, and if there’s another group that’s actively, formally, and consistently supporting the work that book critics do, I haven’t heard about it.

That doesn’t mean I know what it’ll take to make print publications solvent and respect their book sections again, or how best to support the the online outlets that have arrived to fill the vacuum. For now, I can say that I’ve edited and read enough copy about board governance to know that the smart strategy going in is to listen more than I talk. I won’t be able to hush up entirely, though: Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on what the next decade in book culture will be like, where I’ll mostly be figuring out ways to say something more interesting than “Beats the hell out of me.” If you’ll be there, or at one of the awards events, please say hello. (I look pretty much like my Twitter profile image, though it’s a few years old; recalibrate for less hair, larger jowls.)

One response to “On Board

  1. I let my NBCC membership lapse, because the organization never made any real efforts to recognize the marginalized or the disenfranchised. It remains very much an elitist organization run by desperate people trying to cling to the remaining strands of territory they have left before the flood eventually sets in, at the expense of attempting to build a larger community. I’m hoping, Mark, that you might be able to make some headway against this and I certainly admire your clear passion. Listening is definitely the right strategy. But I’m not convinced the other Board members are interested in such pragmatism or interested in promoting other voices and needs outside of their own.

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