The National Book Critics Circle awarded this weekend the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing to Ron Charles, a senior editor at The Washington Post’s imperiled book review section Book World. The honor was presented Saturday, just over a week after it was reported that higher-ups at The Washington Post were considering eliminating Book World as a stand-alone section in order to cut costs.
News of Book World’s possible demise had already spurred the president of the NBCC, Jane Ciabattari, to post a petition on the organization’s official blog that called on all those who have ever contributed to the section to register their protest by signing.
Will the fact of the honor bestowed upon Mr. Charles for his work at Book World have any effect on the people who are currently deciding its fate? Did that possibility play any role in the NBCC’s decision to choose him over the other four critics who made the Balakian Citation shortlist?
In an email, NBCC president Jane Ciabattari was not eager to say one way or the other.
"All of our awards deliberations are confidential," she wrote. "We came to agreement about the choice. That’s what counts."
Rachel Hartigan Shea, who has been acting editor of Book World since Maria Arana resigned at the end of December to pursue a career in writing, said she didn’t know whether Mr. Charles’ selection would do anything to protect Book World.
"You’d have to ask the people who are making the decision," she said. "I can’t really speak about that, because nothing has been officially announced, but Ron is incredibly valued and I don’t think his criticism is going to be leaving The Washington Post [no matter what happens]."
Scott McLemee, who chaired the committee responsible for presenting the Balakian shortlist to the NBCC board, said emphatically that Mr. Charles had not been chosen for the award as part of any campaign to save Book World, noting that the critic had been a finalist several times in the past.
"Anyone saying that has things precisely backwards," he said. "We are raising the alarm about Book World in order to make sure that critics of the calibre of Ron Charles have a nationally prominent venue in which to publish their work. To the best of my knowledge, nobody raised the idea that we were sending semaphore messages to The Post when Charles was a finalist in years past."
But did the board members consider the message that would be sent to the honchos at The Washington Post if Mr. Charles were chosen?
"I can’t speak to what was on peoples’ minds," Mr. McLemee said. "It’s certainly something everyone is aware of, but we were talking about the work itself. That was the main emphasis of the discussion. In corridor talks, I’m sure it certainly did come up, but I think keeping a certain amount of this behind closed doors is kind of necessary. I do think it’s fair to say that the quality of the work is the real issue."
Mr. McLemee said he doesn’t think the NBCC’s advocacy could have had that much power in deciding Book World’s future.
"If The Post is profoundly indifferent to the constituency it’s supposedly serving—if it really does not care about having a highly educated book-buying readership—then it will shut down the Book World and there won’t be a damn thing anyone can do about it, readers or critics or anybody," he said.
"Ron Charles serves the audience and The Washington Post‘s readership. He does so at a steady pace and impressive pace and he does so at high quality. He’s done so for a long time and if the powers that be at The Washington Post are not alert and intelligent enough to respect that, then that’s really too bad. It doesn’t mean that we can’t do it, though, so we sort of have to give him his props."