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The Boston Authors Club: Defending books in the age of distraction

Is there a place in the modern city for a historic group harking back to the Athens of America?

Brian Ajhar

Walking into the Boston Public Library can’t help but evoke generations past. For those visitors with a little imagination, its marble floors and walls, vaulted ceiling, and grand staircase seem to echo with the footsteps of great Bostonians. In this place, on May 29, members of a group called the Boston Authors Club will be doing what their predecessors have done going back more than a century: discussing and honoring some of the best books published by this area’s authors.

The celebration of writing and writers by the 114-year-old club is, in many ways, an old-fashioned pursuit, one perhaps best suited to the days when Boston was the undisputed Athens of America. “The [club’s] limit of membership is 100, a small number in a city like Boston, where every 10th person is suspected of having written a book,” The New York Times observed, somewhat cattily, in 1901. Over the decades, the club has included luminaries such as Henry Cabot Lodge, Willa Cather, Anne Sexton, Mark Twain, and scores of lesser-known writers (including one Gamaliel Bradford, described in early membership reports as “a profound student of human souls”). Winston Churchill was awarded honorary membership, and full members won some 18 Pulitzer Prizes among them.

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But the world of publishing is no longer the cultural force it once was, in Boston or anywhere else. Publishing profits have plummeted; a few years ago, Borders bookstore slipped into bankruptcy. Today, the heads of Barnes & Noble and independent shops alike warily eye the future. According to survey results recently released by the National Endowment for the Arts, only 47 percent of American adults read a work of literature in 2012. By comparison, 59 percent went out to see at least one movie that year, and 71 percent consumed electronic media.

Boston Authors Club members are aware of statistics like these, and their organization is far from immune to the forces that produce them. The historic club is struggling with low participation among its ranks and the intimidating job of trying to call attention to its mission in an increasingly 140-character world. “The question is how books can make any money in the Amazon age and how organizations affiliated with books can survive,” says club president Alan Lawson, an emeritus history professor at Boston College. “We’re standing up for values under siege.”

And yet the club members, in their own admittedly modest way, think that they can have a hand in saving books and the act of reading. But before the Boston Authors Club can do that, it first has to save itself.

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Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was instrumental in creating the Boston Authors Club.

Hulton Archive

Julia Ward Howe, who wrote “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” was instrumental in creating the Boston Authors Club.

THE BATTLE FOR RELEVANCE isn’t unique to the Boston Authors Club and its literary prizes. Even the name-brand National Book Awards, which once held glitzy ceremonies in the Waldorf Astoria in Manhattan, has had to institute changes in recent years to connect with readers. But it wasn’t always this way.

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The inspiration for the Boston Authors Club dates to 19th-century New York, where, in 1882, a group of writers founded the Authors Club of New York as a place to debate the work of their peers. That organization, which would come to include Robert Louis Stevenson and Stephen Crane, limited its membership to men. Boston’s version would prove more egalitarian.

In 1899 Amherst, Mabel Loomis Todd, one of Emily Dickinson’s first editors, hosted a tea at her home. Her guests that day were May Alden Ward, a celebrated author from Cambridge, and Helen Winslow, one of Boston’s first newspaperwomen. They decided they would broach the topic of a Boston authors’ group with Julia Ward Howe, famous for penning the words to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

Similar ideas had previously been floated by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and other local men of letters, but they never really went anywhere. Howe, though, was more decisive than her male counterparts. “Go ahead,” she said, upon hearing the idea. “We will form a club, and it will be a good one, too.” The Boston Authors Club would go on to meet in January 1900 in the Hotel Vendome on Commonwealth Avenue, one of Boston’s most luxurious venues.

The focus from the beginning was on socializing. Although the group’s foundational documents suggest certain high-minded purposes, a glance at the early programs makes clear that even august and distinguished writers liked to kick back. A program from 1903 advertised a serious lecture on the lack of worthy literary criticism in America but noted the talk would be merely 15 minutes. “The rest of the afternoon will be devoted to social intercourse.”

But even as the group was getting started, its demise was already being forecast. “In 1900, The New York Times predicted we would fail because we had women in our membership,” says Betty Lowry, the club’s current membership chair. A year later, the newspaper had singled out another sure cause of doom for the club: The presence of women meant the organization of “Puritanic Boston” would serve only tea, while New York writers could quaff alcohol at their meetings. Nonetheless, the Authors Club of New York disbanded in 1973. The Boston version still serves only tea and coffee.

Today, the Boston Authors Club is nearly three times as big as it once was, counting on its rolls about 250 people who have seen their work published, as well as 25 associate members, people who just love books (disclosure: My father is one of the latter group). Yet despite the increase in numbers, most of the club’s original social functions have withered away. “We’re mainly about books and awards today,” says Lawson.

Lawson, something of an activist leader, has periodically asked members about instituting other kinds of programming, things that might revitalize aspects of the club. Last year, he sent out an e-mail asking what members would like to do beyond awarding prizes — he received little response. “People are very busy,” he says, “and perhaps all we can do is focus on our central function.”

Aside from engaging members who have full-time jobs and families, the organization faces other daunting challenges: an aging membership, diminished numbers of active participants (this year’s prize-selection committee consisted of just seven people), and the need to fund-raise. In addition, of course, the club draws its membership from writers who, notes poet and former board member Helen Marie Casey, “need lots of solitary time to practice their craft.”

The 2013 Julia Ward Howe Prize winners in the adult and young reader categories. Due to a lack of member judges, the Boston Authors Club will not name a winner in the young-reader category this year.

Best-selling “The Art Forger” won a Julia Ward Howe Prize in the adult book category.

“It’s also difficult to make people feel connected to an organization that doesn’t meet regularly and doesn’t have a place that is an organizational home,” says former newspaper editor and club vice president Shirley Moskow. Years ago, members met downtown at The College Club of Boston on Commonwealth Avenue but more recently have decamped to people’s homes in the suburbs. “Boston was once a hotbed of clubs. But between the suburbanization of the population and the ratcheting up of work culture, people don’t need clubs to socialize,” Lawson says. “And this has led to the decline of all kinds of civic organizations.”

That leaves only the awards. Each year, a Julia Ward Howe Prize, the club’s highest honor, goes to one book for adults and another aimed at young readers ; both writers get a $1,000 check (the organization also designates several finalists and “highly recommended” books). In 2013,  B.A. Shapiro’s best-selling The Art Forger won in the adult book category, and Terry Farish’s well-received The Good Braider won in the youth one. The club has displayed critical taste — many of the books it highlights are also acknowledged in other awards.

Award selection is a vigorous process. Starting around September, the club’s reading committee convenes at a member’s home and surveys fiction and nonfiction published within the calendar year by authors who reside or work within a 100-mile radius of Boston. Committee members read a number of books each over the next eight months or so, then write short reports about them. This year, the seven committee members considered more than 100 books. “From the middle of August until the end of the reading period in March,” Moskow says, her husband tells her that the only time he sees her, “my nose is in a book.” (The group could not muster enough readers to consider youth books this year, and so will skip naming a winner in that category. Lawson says the award will return in coming years.)

Finally come the debates, as members lobby for their favorites. “We almost come down to drawn swords because we all have such strong convictions,” Casey says. “It’s quite enlivening,” adds Lawson. “We are polite and respectful and laugh at our differences.”

Lawson has from time to time attempted to get the group to add in objective criteria like rating systems or additional award categories. He admits to being “dubious” about the potential apples-to-oranges comparison when judging between, say, a biography and a book of poetry. But the old way of doing things has held sway.

In the end, Moskow says, “good writing is good writing.”

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Terry Farish’s well-received “The Good Braider” won in the youth.

Terry Farish’s well-received “The Good Braider” won in the young reader category. Due to a lack of member judges, the Boston Authors Club will not name a winner in the young-reader category this year.

ON MAY 29, THE BOSTON AUTHORS CLUB will gather in the McKim Building of the Boston Public Library for a ceremony and luncheon to announce the winner and finalists for its Julia Ward Howe Prize. The group will surely select works of art and significance. It’s not as clear, though, that simply doling out awards, however well selected, is enough to keep the club vital.

There is, for one, the problem of name recognition. “There’s a noticeable uptick in purchases after a book gets a Pulitzer Prize” or a Man Booker Prize, says John Netzer, general manager of the Concord Bookshop. “The bigger the award, the greater the increase in sales we see,” adds Peter Win, assistant manager at Brookline Booksmith. A Julia Ward Howe Prize, however, doesn’t necessarily translate into increased sales, even in local stores. “I think there might have been some small [sales increase] last year,” Netzer says, “but the BAC award is one that flies mostly under the radar.”

And yet “any award is a celebration of writing,” says Taryn Roeder, a publicist at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “Since we’re a Boston-based company, when one of our writers gets a BAC award it’s very significant.” Harvard Education Publishing Group publicist Rose Ann Miller agrees: “I think that the BAC represents the best of the old world, mixing with the new. This book prize honors the best of what our region has to offer, but in such a classy, unpretentious way. It is a gem of a prize.”

Writers who have received awards from the club are quick to note their appreciation, too. “There is nothing more meaningful to a writer than being given an award by other writers,” Shapiro says in an e-mail. “Mark Twain said something about the public being the only critic whose opinion is meaningful, which is true,” she continues. “But in this day and age of anyone and everyone going online and critiquing your book, it’s an honor to be chosen by your peers.”

The club’s awards do not get the splash or recognition of some other prizes. They do not translate into big book sales. But club members insist that there is still something special about them, as well as about their organization. “It’s the oldest literary club in continuous operation” in the United States, Moskow says. “We’re all very conscious about the history of the BAC, of preserving a legacy.”

Maybe the Boston Authors Club’s longevity even suggests its resilience and its ability to take on the considerable challenges it now faces. “We are sending a message to the publishing world, to authors, and to the general readers that we, as always, value quality work,” explains Moying Li, a 2003 award recipient who has since joined the club. “We believe that regardless of the changes in the publishing industry, books will remain an essential part of our lives.”

Alan Lawson, for his part, draws on his training as a historian and his love of books in reflecting on his group’s living legacy. “Dickens described Boston in the 1840s as a vibrant, intellectual community,” he says. “Julia Ward Howe came out of this rather ecstatic period, and I am convinced that there must have been a certain amount of idealistic enthusiasm that she and others brought to the founding of the BAC.”

To him and his fellow members, that’s far too valuable an inheritance to let fade into history.

Julie Dobrow, director of the Communications & Media Studies Program at Tufts University, is writing a biography of Mabel Loomis Todd. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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