Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker Prize-winning author who is president of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL), has broken her silence on the turmoil engulfing the organisation, reports the Times.
In a column for the Guardian, Evaristo responded to criticism from several fellows, including her two predecessors as president, about the running of the society.
Among other issues, critics say the RSL’s refusal to take public stands against attacks on the authors Kate Clanchy and Sir Salman Rushdie calls into question its support for a writer’s right to freedom of expression.
“They would not make a stand about the attacks on Clanchy, some sort of defence for all writers facing these social media attacks,” Dame Mariner Warner, the RSL’s president from 2017 until 2021, said.
Clanchy, who is herself a society fellow, was cancelled and dropped by her publisher after online reviewers began denouncing her award-winning book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, over a handful of sentences that deployed what they described as racial stereotypes (e.g., describing a black child’s skin as “chocolate-coloured”), while also alleging that Clanchy had indulged in ‘ableism’ (e.g., describing two autistic children as “unselfconsciously odd”).
As Joanna Williams said at the time, the company effectively “washed its hands of Clanchy, not because of anything she has said or done post-publication, but because it has retrospectively decided her work is no longer sufficiently woke”.
RSL fellows also say they are astonished that the organisation failed to hold an event in support of Sir Salman Rushdie, or at the very least issue a statement reiterating the importance of authors being able to write what they like without fear of reprisal, after the recent attack on his life.
“[T]hey would not post a pledge of support for Rushdie after he had been nearly murdered,” Dame Mariner Warner told the Times. “They said it might give offence.” Both Dame Mariner and Lisa Appignanesi, the RSL’s chairwoman until 2021, said they were never told – by the society’s small management team, or secretariat – who might be offended.
Ahead of a speech in August 2022, Sir Salman was attacked on-stage by an Islamist sympathiser and stabbed multiple times, in the chest, liver, hand, face and neck. He spent six weeks in hospital, and has now lost the sight in his right eye.
The author and British citizen has lived with a bounty on his head ever since his Booker Prize-winning novel, The Satanic Verses, attracted the ire of Islamists the world over after it was published in 1988. Hardline clerics, community leaders and protesters condemned it as blasphemous. Copies were burnt, protests organised, and effigies of the author hanged, until eventually this agitation caught the attention of Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini who issued his fatwa in 1989, offering $3 million to anyone who would kill the author, or anyone involved in its publication and distribution.
Following the on-stage attack, Iran’s foreign ministry said the author “and his supporters are to blame for what happened to him”. The man charged with Rushdie’s attempted murder is Hadi Matar — a review of Matar’s social media showed he had sympathies for Shia extremism and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard.
Writing for the Guardian, however, Evaristo appeared to defend the RSL’s inaction following this murderous, ideologically motivated, life-changing attack on the author of The Satanic Verses, suggesting it was important for the organisation to avoid getting involved in what she described as “writers’ controversies and issues”.
“The current leadership believe in [freedom of speech],” Evaristo announced, having first subtly reformulated Dame Mariner’s observations regarding the organisation’s failure to publicly express support for writers coming under attack from online mobs and crazed Islamists, as “claims” that the RSL “is curbing freedom of speech”.
“However,” she continued, “the society has a remit to be a voice for literature, not to present itself as ‘the voice’ of its 700 fellows, surely a dangerous and untenable concept. It cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues, but must remain impartial.”
The real “challenge” facing institutions like the RSL today, she said, is not the recent global decline in freedom of expression, the threat posed to literary creativity by the persistence of the ‘assassin’s veto’, or even the seemingly inexorable rise of the censorious sensitivity reader, but in fact “how to tackle the entrenched and unfair hegemonies of the past.
“I’m pleased to see that the RSL has embraced this challenge, especially,” she added, “with my appointment as president in 2022.”