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Episode LXIII: "But we aren't film and we have a different road to travel"

Published 2/12/17
In this installment, I speak with Lisa Lucas. Topics include her first year at NBF, the equality of books, long tail, books vs. film, inclusivity & more.

Today we're with Lisa Lucas, the executive director of the National Book Foundation (and former publisher of Guernica), a nonprofit with its stated mission "to celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America." You're about to close out your tenure's first year (though at this point, last February feels about five years ago). When you first started, what did you hope to accomplish in your first year? What has been the post's most unanticipated challenge?

I can't believe that it has almost been a year. When I think back to this time last year, when I was in the final stages of interviewing for the job, I'm not sure that I concretely knew what I wanted to accomplish. I think I saw an amazing opportunity to serve an organization with 67 years worth of history and hoped that I could shine a light on how incredible the work was, bring new people into the family, and make sure we had a louder voice. Broadly, I was interested in volume and visibility, access, and inclusivity. I think the biggest challenge has been taking all of those big ideas and figuring out how to implement them on the ground. It's one thing to say: I want people to care about the National Book Foundation! I want us to be inclusive! It is quite another to figure out how to do that. You need to do the leg work, find partners, find funding, think about how you tell your organizational story, build a team, and about one million other things before you start to see motion. I suppose that isn't unexpected, but I think you can be so idealistic when you care a lot that you forget that change is built out of a whole lot of small motions. And you have to remember that it's a marathon. 

The politics of 2016 and 2017 have also been quite the unexpected challenge. I don't think any of us know how to work in a climate made entirely of unknowns. 

NBF's mission is, as you say, full of big ideas. How to implement them seems like anyone's guess—or, really, everyone's. There's advocating for inclusivity, both in demographics and genre. There are awards; NBF gives out the National Book Award, and the annual "5 Under 35". There's social media, and events, and whatever else, but every measure seems like it does a much better job at bolstering the community's engagement than it does bringing in those who aren’t already readers. On a smaller, more concrete scale, what are some of NBF's pathways to achieving inclusion in that sense?

Well, I think the mission isn't super hard to parse. Celebrating the best of American literature is what we do with the Awards and 5 Under 35. We shine a light on work that we believe is incredible and important and that people should read. In a landscape filled with so many books, readers do need some guidance in finding their way to these books. Expanding its audience happens already too: we bring our authors to colleges, to book festivals, to readers via booksellers and libraries who follow the awards, to people who follow coverage in the media. With young people, we host a livestreamed Teen Press Conference that introduces young readers to the YPL Finalists, and we present a program called BookUp, which is a 24 week book club that gives middle schoolers books, brings a published author to their after-school programs to discuss these books and takes them to bookstores (armed with cash to choose and buy their own books). And this program has run for 11 years. It's in Detroit, NYC, Huntsville, Texas, and Los Angeles. I don't think that the existing programs don't satisfy the mission, I think the question is scale and awareness—how do we do this with MORE young people and how do we make sure that people who know about the National Book Awards, particularly those who can help us do more, know that we are more than just the Awards? 

Recently we joined up in a partnership with the Department of Education, HUD, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading and the Urban Libraries Council on the Book Rich Environments Initiative, where we will work with over 30 public housing authorities around the country, host events, and over 250,000 books will be given to children and families through this work. I think this program retains the spirit of BookUp and of the Foundation's work, but because it reaches more people, in more parts of the country, it makes more noise. But I've said it before and I'll say it again, I think we have always, and well before me, done work to try and reach those who haven't been spoken to. 

That was a very comprehensive 'how'—let's switch gears to the 'what'. You said it well: "In a landscape filled with so many books, readers do need some guidance in finding their way to these books." All books aren't created equal, thankfully, and as an organization that gives out (quite prestigious) awards, you have the onus of assessing the value of a work. But on a larger scale, in your efforts to spread readership, what notions does NBF have as far as what makes one work more worthy of diffusion than another?

That is an excellent question and the best I can say is that we talk about it quite a lot and are figuring that out. In the meantime, we are pro-reading and believe that if you are picking up a book and spending some hours with it, no matter the book, it make us happy.

I don't mean to be provoking here, and I appreciated the tenor of your tweet on the subject, but is that to say that the NBF supports Milo Yiannopoulus' upcoming book with S&S just as much as you would, say, Roxane Gay's recent release?

If you read my tweet, you know that this question will be met with silence! 

Alas, I'm not here to judge books. That is what our judges are for. Personally, I'm not into hate and I don't hope that anyone reads things that promote it. But I do hope that people read, full stop. And that includes things I don't love or agree with. 

That's fair, and yes, I should've known that. Tangentially, as far as promoting all readership, there is, as you said, a ton to read. Long tail is alive and well and the tail is only getting longer. And so awards and the like (best of lists, marketing, promotion, social media or otherwise) become more important. I recently came to a disagreement with a friend about those few books every year that breaks the world of books, the ones that get picked up by those who read, say, less than five books a year. The Underground Railroad comes to mind. Or: Fates and Furies, which even Obama helped bring to the masses. One of us said that there's so much overlooked lit out there, to spend all of our joint efforts on a handful of titles doesn't make sense. The other thought if these superstar releases are the only ones that break the lit bubble, more power to them. Do you think we should continue being great at promoting what's already out there, or spend more energy on titles that don't find their audience but should?

I think a healthy literary climate is one that makes room for books that become superstars and also helps to support books that have a harder time finding an audience. As an organization devoted to books and literature, with a national focus, I think it's important to think about how we can do both. It's hard, only 11 months in, to really answer to how, but that too is much on our mind. We're actually in the midst of a strategic planning phase and you are asking many of the questions we are asking ourselves. We know, more or less, what happens at the Awards level. And it's exciting when we get books or the work of smaller presses that are less well known and help get those books out into the world. And sometimes, we all converge on a handful of titles. That said, a superstar book is not reaching the same audience as a superstar film, so I'm not really sure that's a bad thing. There are over 323 million Americans. Is it really overkill for a lot of attention to go to Underground Railroad? Has it sold a million copies yet? But aside from that, I do think that we all want to see all kinds of titles finding their way, and are thinking quite a bit about how to work with bookstores, libraries, cultural institutions, governmental agencies, cities, etc. to promote reading at large, not just one hit book. And as time passes, those programs and partnerships will come to be and develop. But for now, if you look through all the longlist, finalist and winning titles from 1950 on, it's pretty clear that those are not all books that had an easy way. Some folks have a tendency, I think, to only focus on the fiction winner, when in fact we are celebrating and promoting 40 titles in 4 categories in any given year. 

Why is it, you think, that film flourishes more in this country—not just on the blockbuster scale but those coming out of independent studious as well?

I think the medium lends itself to a larger audience—for starters, watching a film takes two hours and we can watch them together. But I think that independent film had to do a lot of work to get where it is today. Sundance just happened, and we all see the news of what films got bought, what broke out, and what won awards all over the news, but that is recent history. Indie film had to work hard, like we are working today, to find its audience. I'm particularly fond of Peter Biskind's book DOWN AND DIRTY PICTURES for the backstory on independent film becoming the force it is today. I look to that history quite a lot when I think about how literature and books might develop a new, bigger audience and cultural presence, especially coming out of the independent film world myself. 

I hope you'll disagree with me here, and think you will, but is it possible that the film industry benefits from the opposite of inclusivity? That is, movie reviews often reflect the variety of quality that exists in the medium (and it's therefore easier for films worth seeing to get notice), whereas negative book reviews are scarce, unless the author is some mainstay, or a well-hyped, well-well-paid debut writer. I watch indie films (even though I don't know much of the industry) because I can get an idea—usually a good idea—of its worth from reviews (and Rotten Tomatoes), whereas that aggregator doesn't exist for books, and it couldn't, because the reviews are overwhelmingly positive.

And to clarify, by inclusivity, I mean the abstract sort, not of diversity or demographic.

Negative books reviews are scarce, true, but you can look almost every single movie up on Rotten Tomatoes. They are all getting reviewed somewhere. Not the case with books! I think film benefits from butts in seats, which encourages more reviews, which allows for space for negative reviews, which allows us to really measure what we'd like to see. I think that if books actually got more coverage, like they used to, they'd probably get more pans too. Ultimately, I think we can learn a lot from film, and indie film, but we aren't film and we have a different road to travel.

That's all fair. I want to shift to inclusivity, actual inclusivity of people of all varieties into a publishing landscape that looks a lot like me—white, male, straight. The all-together-now mantra of (nearly) everyone vocal in publishing is that the goal should be that the industry parodies the population—and yet the needle barely budges. Is promoting diversity a tangible goal of NBF? And what are the tangible steps toward getting there?

Well, NBF can't buy, edit or publish publics, nor can we staff publishing houses, indie presses, or bookstores. But what we can do is to help build new readers through our educational and engagement initiatives and to invite all kinds of audiences to feel a part of the Awards. And we can be a part of the conversation happening in publishing that this is important, that diversity/equity/inclusivity matters. We can make sure our panels look like the America we all really live in. We can get people excited about books, which I hope gets people excited about working in books, too. 

We're nearly out of time, Lisa, so I'll thank you for yours. But before we part, I want to ask you to promote just one book you want to get to a greater readership.

Ah! Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai was wonderful. It came out years ago, but New Direction's recently republished it. For a book that is deeply intellectual, it's hilarious, a page-turner, and one of the best books about motherhood I've read in a while. 

Thanks so much Lisa, it was a pleasure having you on.