In this series of interviews, we will introduce you to some of our new board members serving as Vice Presidents at the National Book Critics Circle, as well as to some of the new initiatives and opportunities unfolding in our organization. Stay tuned for an interview with Ruben Quesada, VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and check out our earlier interviews with Chelsea Leu, VP of Membership, and Heather Scott Partington, VP of the Emerging Critics Program.
Anita Felicelli is the author of the award-winning short story collection Love Songs for a Lost Continent and Chimerica: A Novel. Most recently, her short stories have appeared in The Massachusetts Review, Air/Light, Midnight Breakfast, and Alta. Her criticism and essays have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Los Angeles Review of Books, Catapult, Salon, Slate, and New York Times (Modern Love). She has received a Puffin Foundation grant, Greater Bay Area Journalism Awards, and Pushcart Prize nominations. She graduated from UC Berkeley with honors and a triple major, and also holds a J.D. from Berkeley Law. Anita lives in the Bay Area with her family.
What interested you in the role of VP of Fundraising, and what is your vision for this role?
I stepped into the role of VP of Fundraising with the same motivation that animates a lot of my other work: there was a need. I see fundraising as a way to help shape the NBCC’s vision for literary criticism, and the larger publishing ecosystem, to be enriched by more voices and perspectives. My primary goal in fundraising is to raise money that would allow us to do that work, while our VP of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, critic and poet Ruben Quesada is spearheading our broader conversation and planning.
Much of the work around books and criticism are underpaid labors of love, though we all hope these conditions can be made different. The NBCC is an all-volunteer organization that centers around our annual awards. Unlike other awards, our final lists draw on the Board and membership’s own wide reading, rather than solely on publishers’ nominations. However, part of the NBCC mission is also to “raise the quality of book criticism in all media, and to promote the appreciation of literature.” I would like to do more to fulfill this aspect of our mission.
In order to accomplish this mission, I believe we need to hold events that incorporate difficult, but interesting, conversations about diverse literary traditions in America and around the world. We need to talk, and even disagree, about the role of critics in expanding and seriously engaging with literature. We need to not only reward excellence as it is measured by what has already been done in literature, but also look out for the original and the new. I think we should be talking, not only tweeting or having private conversations, about the role criticism and editors play in ensuring that underrepresented voices in terms of race, sexual orientation, gender expression, ability, and class have a fair shot of contributing and shaping the present and future of books and reaching readers.
What brought you to literary criticism and to the NBCC?
I studied English, Rhetoric, art and law in school and gained a number of interpretive lenses on speech, storytelling, and hermeneutics that I’ve spend the last twenty years attempting to reconcile as I read contemporary literature. After graduation, I didn’t want to join academia. I wanted the absolute freedom to develop my own ideas outside those constraints, which is what I did. More than ten years ago, I noticed that many reviews were not interpreting books, so much as offering lively writing and conclusions about them. I noticed egregious factual errors and assumptions in criticism, particularly with regard to Indian cultures and the Bay Area. Many of the critics making these errors had no background in other cultures, and well-intentioned gatekeepers may not have had the knowledge-base to realize that those assumptions were not a matter of opinions that could go either way, but based on erroneous facts. It’s not that these reviews argued the “wrong” thing, or that there is a “right interpretation” of any book, but that the criticism inadvertently relied on faulty premises for their conclusions.
Years ago, I pitched a review to Los Angeles Review of Books about a novel I saw being misinterpreted in the press due to lack of familiarity, not only with history of protest in India, but also philosophy and postpartum depression. To my great good fortune, Tom Lutz accepted my cold pitch. I’ve been reviewing a wide range of books ever since.
I ran for the NBCC Board because I believe books should be reviewed and critiqued closely without regard to the marketing budget behind them. In law school, I had a particular interest in the First Amendment and hate speech. Books and criticism are valuable to the society we create together— even if it takes years for the ideas and stories expressed in books to become part of our shared reality. If we’re to live up to the ideals of the First Amendment and democracy, the voices of marginalized thinkers and creators, perhaps especially the ones outside the mainstream, need to be given a fair shake by knowledgeable critics. The data and research show this is not what’s happening at present. In my view, the NBCC has a responsibility to help lead the conversations that produce intelligent literary discourse and a genuinely diverse and intellectual culture.
You are organizing a fundraising auction for the NBCC that offers many exciting and unique opportunities that will appeal to critics, writers, and readers. What are some of the offerings potential bidders can look forward to, and what else can you share with us about the auction?
As I answer this, I’m still putting the list together. The virtual auction is being planned for the end of August. What most excites me about what we’re offering is a category of experience called “Ask Me Anything About Writing, Books, Publishing, or Criticism.” We are asking writers, editors, and critics to volunteer 20-30 minutes of their time, on Zoom, to answer the highest bidder’s questions about this often-confusing area of work.
In brainstorming for this auction, I wanted to find valuable experiences for those who feel the lit world is inaccessible and need help navigating it. When I first submitted work in my late teens and early twenties, I had no idea what I was doing or why I couldn’t get a book or pitch accepted. I needed answers to specific questions; I needed straight talk and smart conversations with the best-of-the-best. Some of the generous writers and editors who have agreed to be involved in providing conversations to be auctioned-off to raise funds for the NBCC include Riverhead editor Calvert Morgan; National Book Award-winner Charles Yu; Poet and professor Donika Kelly; Award-winning author and professor Darin Strauss; Award-winning novelist Aleksandar Hemon; Poet and Whiting Award winner Vanessa Angélica Villarreal; Poet, professor, and four-time National Poetry Slam champion Patricia Smith; Alta books editor and former LA Times book editor David Ulin; and Alta managing editor Blaise Zerega.
We’re also planning to offer manuscript consults from Zyzzyva editor and former San Francisco Chronicle Books editor Oscar Villalon; literary angel, writer, editor and successful small press 7.13 Books founder Leland Cheuk; and several Board members. Fellow Board members Maris Kreizman and Megan Labrise invented a smart, knowledgeable and fun session for would-be podcasters called “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Literary Podcasting* (*But Were Afraid to Ask).”
I am very excited about bundles of extraordinary, literary letterpress broadsides and cards from Expedition Press. LGBTQ historian, also known as the “mother of lesbian history,” Lillian Faderman is donating a box of her books. The Mastheads has generously offered to donate a two-day residency bundle. We will announce more offerings soon.
Can members contribute items or opportunities to the auction? If so, do you have a wish list for additions to the auction?
If a member has a vacation house that could be used as a writing retreat, I would love to offer that, or even raffle it off. Similarly, if a member has a restaurant or is closely-connected to a restaurant that would be willing to donate dinner in San Francisco or New York City, we could include that in our baskets. I’m curating two baskets tentatively entitled “Literary San Francisco” and “Inventive Contemporary American Literature,” so some small presses and publishers can anticipate I might reach out to them with high hopes. I’m open to suggestions about all this. I want this first auction to be stellar, and the only way to have a shot at that is to be receptive to criticism, other people’s inspired suggestions, acts of generosity, and knowledgeable offers of assistance.
Do you have other events or initiatives in the works?
I’m hoping that our fundraising can be used in furtherance of broader, varied and exciting conversations about books and criticism. At an old, brief job with a film festival, I put together salons where artsy or innovative people could come together, drink, eat and talk about ideas and what they were working on. It would be a dream to be able to put together events that are similar, but arranged as conversations and panels about books at the NBCC. We would like to be able to offer an honorarium to authors, editors and critics who speak on our panels in order to express our gratitude and value their time and hard-earned expertise. Some of the funds we raise will go towards this.