Lisa Lucas wants reading to be “cake, not spinach.”
The executive director of the National Book Foundation delivered the morning lecture Wednesday, June 27 in the Amphitheater during Week One, “The Life of the Written Word.”
This was Lucas’ first visit to Chautauqua Institution.
“I’m not intimidated at all,” she joked to open her lecture. “This is all very normal.”
Lucas started working in theater — a path vastly different from her current trajectory — for Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. Later, she moved to film, serving as director of education at the Tribeca Film Institute and as a consultant for the Sundance Institute, San Francisco Film Society and Reel Works Teen Filmmaking.
Before joining the National Book Foundation, Lucas served as a publisher of the nonprofit online magazine, Guernica.
She is the first woman and African-American to serve as executive director of the National Book Foundation, which is responsible for the annual National Book Awards.
Lucas called herself an “independent reader” from a young age, but she never anticipated taking a hobby and turning it into a career.
“I never really even dreamed of taking this thing that I loved and actually just get a job at 32 years old, working in publishing — something I’d never done before — but I did it,” she said. “Almost two-and-a-half years ago, I found myself appointed director of the National Book Foundation.”
Her new job came with a long history.
The first National Book Awards were awarded and celebrated in 1950 through a joint effort by the American Book Publishers Council, the Book Manufacturers Institute and the American Booksellers Association. In 1980, it broadened and was renamed the American Book Awards, which awarded 28 prizes.
Its gross expansion watered down the impact of the awards, and in 1986, the organization returned to being the National Book Awards.
“We were no longer just thinking on how to sell a book, or two books or 27 books maybe — we weren’t about just making money,” Lucas said. “It was about thinking about the core of what the book is to American culture and thinking about how to protect and preserve that.”
From there, the organization worked to reignite the glamour of books. Lucas described the National Book Awards as “the Oscars on a bad year.”
“We spent a lot of years making (the National Book Awards) into a big benefit that actually drew the eye and brought people to celebrate the work we do,” she said.
Her first encounter with the organization was at the after-party in 2012. Lucas described being in awe of the authors, designers and publishers she was surrounded by, thinking that she had ”made it”; she returned to that party every year after.
After the former executive director of the National Book Foundation announced his impending retirement, Lucas received a call from a recruiter asking if she knew anyone who would be a good hire. She rambled off names before giving some choice advice.
“You really should think about having a person of color,” she said, before breathlessly rattling off that “you probably should think about hiring a woman. Because there really aren’t many women running things and there aren’t really many people of color running things, and you know things are really changing because things are the same as they were 20 years ago, and you should think about that.”
The recruiter said “Why not you?” Lucas submitted a resume and was rejected.
She returned to the after-party that year, upset. But, later the National Book Foundation called again with the job offer.
When she first got the news, she thought of the offer as a great opportunity.
“I really just thought about a couple of ex-boyfriends that might be really sad they dumped me,” Lucas said. “I thought about my parents being like ‘Oh, that’s a good job.’ They were always a little concerned about my path that I chose.”
Lucas didn’t think about the magnitude of her accomplishment until stories and interviews with publications like The New York Times and NPR began piling up. When the news broke, the response was overwhelming.
“There was this constant repeated message — everything changed,” she said.
Lucas called her presence at the organization “woke.”
One of her first tasks at the National Book Foundation was to update the mission, which she read to the audience:
“The mission of the National Book Foundation is to celebrate the best literature in America, expand its audience and ensure that books have a prominent place in American culture.”
A key element of the mission that shifted, according to Lucas, was to celebrate the “best literature in America” rather than the “best American literature.” Prompted by this, the organization added a fifth National Book Award for translated texts earlier this year.
“We thought, ‘We’re talking to Americans, Americans are from all over the world’ — we’re a country of immigrants. So why should we encourage reading only our stories when we should also be reading stories from Japan, Kenya, from China, from Mexico and from all around the world? All of these cultures influence our culture and are a part of us.”
–Lisa Lucas, Executive Director, National Book Foundation
“We are looking outward — even though we are an American institution devoted to celebrating American literature — we also want to celebrate the American reader,” Lucas said.
Lucas acknowledged diverse characters in books, but said inclusion must go further. She pointed to the publishing industry.
“It’s not only the fact that we don’t see ourselves,” she said. “It’s also that no one is telling us that books are for (minorities).”
Marketing in most publishing houses is aimed at white women, according to Lucas, and it is affecting the reading habits of underrepresented youth.
“Who’s telling you that (reading) is cake and not spinach?” she said.
But building a love for literature starts at home, Lucas said, to make sure kids are getting their “spinach” and enjoying their cake. Lucas emphasized the urgency to change the narrative around representation in books and the health of the book business.
“The book is definitely— 100 percent, in no way — dead,” she said.
Book sales are raising among young people, bookstores are becoming community hubs and the electronic book is not overpowering paperback sales, according to Lucas.
“We have to believe in the book, support our institutions, and celebrate the book and support our authors,” she said.
After her lecture, Chautauqua Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking Lucas how to address dated cultural attitudes in many classic novels.
Lucas said it is important to impress that “there are different cultural narrative(s)” throughout history and that parents, teachers and mentors should impress onto young people that, despite oppression faced by minorities in 19th- and 20th-century novels, they own their own narrative.
Ewalt then opened the floor to audience questions. An attendee asked how people manage to find time to read among other obligations.
“I hear people say ‘I have to go to yoga, but oh, did you see ‘The Wire’ last Night? I watched all ve seasons,’ ” Lucas said.
She reflected on the Harry Potter craze, where everyone found the time to read the series because everyone was talking about it, according to Lucas.
“When there’s cultural pressure, people will find the time to read,” she said.
The lecture concluded with a question that asked how to encourage and influence more people to read.
“It’s like how everyone that likes a candidate brings two people to the polls — bring 10 to the bookstore,” Lucas said.