An Interview with NBCC Service Award Winner Barbara Hoffert

By Halima Elmajdoubi

Barbara at podium The 2022 National Book Critics Circle Awards, New School Auditorium, New York, New York, March 23, 2023. Photograph by Beowulf Sheehan

This year, the National Book Critics Circle is proud to announce the NBCC Service Award, an opportunity to honor members who have gone above and beyond in their service to the organization. The inaugural Service Award recipient is former NBCC president and board member Barbara Hoffert. Barbara Hoffert is the longtime editor of Library Journal’s Prepub Alert, and she has served on the NBCC board for over a decade. Her contributions to the organization have proved invaluable, and the NBCC is proud to honor her with this award.

You served on the Board for over a decade and in several leadership positions. Could you describe the roles you played within the organization over the years?

I served on the board for 12 years, in two consecutive three-year terms starting in the mid-Nineties, with three years as treasurer and three years as president. Then two consecutive three-year terms six years later, all as awards chair while also handling press releases. I am no money person, but at my first board meeting, no one was volunteering to be treasurer and I thought, Why not? I want to be helpful. Treasurer is actually a really good position for anyone joining the board, because it provides an overview of the entire organization. After three years, the board was somewhat in ferment and I was asked to run for president, and again I thought, Why not be helpful? My only vision/platform (when I got asked): let’s get organized. I held that position for two years (the term limit) and then agreed to stay on for a third, after which my board time was up. When I returned to the board six years later, the awards position seemed natural—through my work as Prepub Alert editor at Library Journal, I am in constant contact with publishers, so getting books for board members and getting finalists informed was easy. And fun.

What motivated you to join the NBCC?

I joined the NBCC because I wanted a broader perspective on my profession through contact with a range of critics and reviews editors. And not just to discuss books—though the pleasure there was immeasurable—but to discuss the issues we all encounter, from the ethics of reviewing to the practicalities of assaying an ever-increasing book load. Leadership roles made it even better; I wasn’t just benefiting but, I hope, more actively contributing to the advancement of the organization and its goals.

In addition to your contributions to the NBCC, you also work as editor of the Library Journal’s Prepub Alert. What inspired you to pursue a career in publishing? In what ways did your work for the NBCC and LJ overlap?

I turned to publishing as a book lover after opting not to pursue a Ph.D. in philosophy, and book reviewing in particular fit right in with the love of ideas and analysis that prompted my interest in philosophy. I started as a reviews editor at LJ and after 37 years continue to assign literary fiction and poetry (my other big loves), along with the occasional smattering of other subjects that has included, yes, philosophy. I managed LJ’s book review for many years while writing Prepub Alert, but the column was expanded and is now my main job, posting online every week (and monthly in the magazine); it features key titles for my audience six months in advance of publication, and I do about 1,500 books a year. It’s news reporting but informed by my work as a reviews editor. Writing about all those books in advance (including books not in my assigning areas) kept me up to date on forthcoming books, which helped with final awards decisions; for committee work to choose finalists, I stuck closely to my on-the-job assigning areas and could make in-depth suggestions there.

How have you been affected by your professional relationships with other NBCC members and board members?

They’re my people, and I really miss being on the board! Every conversation sharpened my understanding of books (and of business), and it has made for an easy answer to that famous question, Which three people would you invite to a fancy dinner party? Actually, I hesitate to single out three people, or ten, but a big shoutout to Karen Long and Jane Ciabattari for always being connected, and to Maureen McLane for making me love poetry more. Finally, it was remarkably reassuring to hear two critics I really admired expressing diametrically opposed opinions on the same book. Ha! Trust your own thoughts.

What do you hope for the future of the organization?

BH: When I went off the board, I looked forward to all the younger critics coming in and moving criticism forward in a world that’s so different from the professional world I entered. And that’s an ongoing challenge. What new forms might criticism take? What new platforms might emerge? (The old platforms aren’t always holding, how to empower newer centers of criticism?) How do you maintain the concept of critical thinking in the face of social-media deluge and a tendency toward trendiness-take-all? In addition, we face an ongoing moral obligation to review and celebrate a wide range of inclusive books and find better ways to talk about them.

What went through your mind when you found out you were going to be first-ever recipient of the award?

Shock and gratitude and disbelief. In fact, it took me forever to reach out and thank key people because it hasn’t seemed quite real. Sometimes, while writing a review or proposing a finalist or organizing the next awards ceremony, I have wondered, Is this making a difference? I’m glad it did.

Any additional thoughts or comments?

Just thank you to everyone for your attention and for this honor.

Halima Elmajdoubi is a junior at Ohio Wesleyan University and an intern for the National Book Critics Circle.