New to the NBCC: Heather Scott Partington, Vice President/Emerging Critics Fellowship

By Rebecca Morgan Frank

In this series of interviews, we will introduce you to some of our new board members serving as Vice Presidents at the NBCC, as well as to some of the new initiatives and opportunities unfolding in our organization. Stay tuned for interviews with Ruben Quesada, VP of Diversity and Inclusion; Chelsea Leu, VP of Membership; and Anita Felicelli, VP of Fundraising.

Heather Scott Partington was elected VP of the Emerging Critics Fellowship Program in late March and immediately began work on the fourth cycle of the fellowship program. She is a writer, teacher, and book critic. Her criticism has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday, the Star Tribune, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. She is a regular contributor to Kirkus and Alta Journal of California. Heather was a 2017-2018 Emerging Critics Fellow for the National Book Critics Circle and the 2019-2020 critic in residence for UC Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA. She lives in Elk Grove, California, with her husband and two kids.

What initiatives or programs are you working on in your new role as VP for the Emerging Critics Fellowship program of the National Book Critics Circle Board?

The Emerging Critics Fellowship was established by Elizabeth Taylor in 2017. She envisioned a program that would provide information, advice, and publication opportunities for the next generation of critics.

I’m currently developing a calendar of professional development and support for the new class of Emerging Critics (ECs). Topics for these small-group EC sessions with literary professionals include ethics and professionalism, how to write reviews, working with editors and publicists, pitching, and more. I’d also like to build on the successful NBCC membership cocktail hour and schedule some informal Q&As with the board. I believe that it is vital to form a group of ECs who will learn from mentors within the NBCC but also from each other.

This year we would also like to get the ECs more involved with the John Leonard Prize committee. Reading widely for the prize, which is for first books in any genre, from large presses as well as small/indie presses, will not only give our new critics a chance to explore 2021’s literary offerings, but will give them a chance to hone their critical skills.

Can you talk about your own experience as an Emerging Critics Fellow in 2017-2018? How has mentorship impacted your work as a critic?

The Emerging Critics Fellowship was vital as I started my career, and the relationships I formed have continued to be valuable to me. Criticism is a lonely gig and a bit mysterious; the best thing about my fellowship was the chance to talk to and learn from other critics. No longer was I alone in my office composing reviews, throwing out pitches, and trying to learn the job by Googling. The fellowship made many things plain for me, and I still rely on notes that I took during EC sessions about the ethics of reviewing, writing pitches, interviewing authors, and working with editors. Because there were so many talented writers in my cohort, the fellowship allowed me to envision myself as a real critic, not just someone who dabbled in book reviews. Finally, I believed that I was part of a larger conversation about books. The book review, done well, is art—creative writing in and of itself—so I gobbled up every opportunity to learn more about it.

Do you have plans for any expansion for the upcoming cycle of the program?

I want to build on what Elizabeth Taylor envisioned and cast a wide net. As print outlets dwindle, book criticism has blossomed in other forums. In addition to the traditional outlets, amazing conversations about literature are happening on Book Twitter, Bookstagram, BookTube, and BookTok. Let’s bring people in. Applicants don’t have to already be published critics, but they should be writers who can demonstrate that they can think and write critically. I am invested in trying to find people who are great thinkers and writers but who need a path to a job as a working critic. I would love the fellowship to break down financial or geographical barriers for emerging critics. BIPOC critics, LGBTQIA+ critics, critics with disabilities, and critics from historically marginalized communities are especially encouraged to apply for the EC Fellowship.

There are some unspoken taboos about sharing knowledge with others about how to actually get work or get paid as a book critic, but if we spend our time talking about criticism without teaching people how to get their work published, it’s all for naught. I want to celebrate the craft while demystifying the business of book reviewing.

What’s different this year? The NBCCs Emerging Critics committee is working closely with the membership and fundraising committees to create more virtual events­, both social and professional, for the entire membership. These will be great for the ECs, too. Since the emerging critics will receive a free yearlong membership to the NBCC, they will gain access to these events plus some additional small group time for Q&A with presenters. When added to the EC-only events, there will hopefully be opportunities for learning and connection about twice a month over the next year.

How do you envision this program carrying forward the NBCC’s commitment to increased diversity and inclusion?

If the NBCC is going to truly celebrate diverse traditions in literature and criticism, we need to make the profession more transparent and accessible. We need to amplify the voices of traditionally marginalized critics. As the NBCC board does the important work of examining our own biases and privileges, we’re envisioning an EC program that supports and values all writers. Through education and outreach, we can create paths to publication.

Who is this program open to, and do you have any pointers for the application process?

The Emerging Critics Fellowship is open to anyone! The NBCC is seeking a diverse group of applicants who seek to write about books for print or digital outlets. You are welcome to apply whether you’ve published anything yet or not. There are no genre restrictions, age limits, or geographic restrictions. Applicants do not need to already be members of the NBCC. What we want to see is that you are committed to engaging in a critical conversation about books.

Applicants must submit a resume, contact information for two references, three writing samples, and a 300-500-word statement of purpose to the NBCC’s Submittable. The writing samples should demonstrate critical thinking. The statement of purpose should give us a clear sense of who you are and your goals as a critic. It is also a chance to elaborate on anything in your application or illuminate anything that doesn’t appear elsewhere. Please make sure you provide current email or phone contact information for your references. There is no cost to apply. 

You can find more information, and links to the application, here.