A major revolt among fellows of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) is now threatening to destabilise the organisation, according to the Times.
Set up in 1820 under the patronage of George IV, and intended to “reward literary merit and excite literary talent”, the RSL is now a charity that organises public events and masterclasses, administers various prizes and funds author visits in schools and prisons.
To be nominated for fellowship, the RSL stipulates that writers must have published or produced at least two substantial works of “outstanding literary merit”, whether in book form, as theatre productions, works for the big or small screen, or in any other form “through which great writing can be shared”. Past and present fellows include Simon Armitage, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, Andrew Motion, Zadie Smith, and JK Rowling.
Now, however, a number of current fellows, as well as three former presidents of the society, have spoken to the Times over their concerns at what is happening behind the scenes at the RSL. Some are considering resigning, while others have already done so.
Among other issues, they say the organisation’s refusal to take public stands against the attacks on authors Kate Clanchy and Sir Salman Rushdie has called 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.
Kate Clanchy’s memoir of her 35-year teaching career, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, was published to critical acclaim in 2019, and went on to win the Orwell Prize in 2020.
Less than a year later, reviewers began denouncing the book online for 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”).
With the online mob closing in on its latest victim, Clanchy’s publishing contract was terminated by Picador, the literary imprint at publisher Pan Macmillan.
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”.
Those who leapt to Ms Clanchy’s defence included RSL fellow Sir Philip Pullman, who said anyone condemning the book without having read it would “find a comfortable home in IS or the Taliban”. Following outrage on social media, however, Sir Philip quickly hurried back behind the ‘progressive’ barricades, first apologising for the style of his initial comment, and then apologising again for defending Clanchy at all.
Ms Clanchy’s former publisher at Picador, Philip Gwyn Jones, also said he regretted not supporting the author more strenuously. Online pushback prompted Mr Jones to retreat in similar fashion, issuing an apology for his (sort of) apology.
Addressing the audience at the RSL’s summer party last year, poet and current RSL chair Daljit Nagra joked that addressing “the greatest number ever of literature’s finest in one room” was making him blush “ever so chocolatey”, before adding: “And I can say that.” It’s unclear whether this was intended as an oblique, ever-so-slightly snide reference to Clanchy’s cancellation at the hands of the online language police.
RSL fellows also say they are astonished that the organisation has not held an event in support of Sir Salman Rushdie, or at the very least issued 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 continued. “They said it might give offence.” Both Dame Warner 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 attack, Iran’s foreign ministry said the author “and his supporters are to blame for what happened to him”. The man charged with Mr 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.
A spokesperson for the RSL has said that “regarding internal debates, we will not be able to offer comment until after the next Council meeting on 20 February”.