Salman Rushdie, Bernardine Evaristo and the Royal Society of Literature at war

A major revolt among fellows of the prestigious Royal Society of Literature is threatening to destabilise the organisation - and one of the issues is whether the organisation is doing enough to support a writer's right to freedom of expression.

A major revolt among fellows of the prestigious Royal Society of Literature (RSL) is now threatening to destabilise the organisation, reports the Times.  

As Sam Leith observes for the Spectator, the RSL – whose past and present fellows include Martin Amis, Margaret Atwood, Hilary Mantel, JK Rowling, Sir Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith – sounds one of those institutions that chugs on benignly year in year out with nothing to disturb the peace of its members. But a number of current fellows, as well as three former presidents of the society, have now gone public with concerns at what is happening behind the scenes. Some are considering resigning, while others have already done so.

Earlier this week, a letter signed by 14 distinguished writers appeared in in the Times Literary Supplement, calling on the leadership of the RSL to refer itself to the Charity Commission – something the RSL has in fact now done, citing what it describes as a “sustained campaign of misinformation being made against us, and the potential for reputational damage in media reporting”.

Among other concerns, fellows say they are astonished 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.

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 stabbing, 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.

Speaking to the Times earlier this month, former RSL president Dame Marina Warner said the organisation “would not post a pledge of support for Rushdie after he had been nearly murdered” because “it might give offence.” Both Dame Marina and Lisa Appignanesi, the RSL’s chairwoman until 2021, say they were never told – by the society’s management team or secretariat – who might be offended.

The Times has since learnt that at last November’s AGM, when the RSL’s leadership were asked by the novelist Maggie Gee why they had not defended Rushdie, the question was brushed aside by the platform. Following the conclusion of that meeting, the biographer Miranda Seymour asked Rosenberg the same question, and was told it was because “we are not a political organisation and so we cannot speak for all fellows since they may have different views”.

One of the newer fellows, novelist Karin Altenberg, said she was shocked by the tense and intimidating atmosphere when Rushdie was mentioned. She said: “Afterwards I thanked one of those who had been very eloquent on the Rushdie issue from the floor, and she told me that she had been afraid to speak up. This saddened me, that a distinguished writer should feel nervous about addressing the issue of freedom of speech at a meeting of the RSL seems wrong.”

Current RSL president Bernadine Evaristo has since defended the RSL’s inaction following the ideologically motivated, life-changing attack on Sir Salman. Writing for the Guardian, the Booker prizewinning author said it was important for the organisation not to “take sides in writers’ controversies and issues”.

No sooner had this claim been made, however, than the RSL was plunged into what the Times describes as a “gender censoring row” – but that others might regard as an attempt to “take sides” in a “writers’ controversy”.

Following the death of the travel writer and sex-change pioneer Jan Morris in 2020, the RSL commissioned an obituary from her friend and biographer Derek Johns – yet when the piece eventually appeared in the RSL’s annual magazine it had been edited, with references to Jan Morris’s pre-gender reassignment status as ‘James’ excised.

When the Times asked RSL director Molly Rosenberg about these edits, she told them the obituary had been “deeply offensive to herself and the trans community more broadly”, and that in ‘deadnaming’ Jan and describing her as “a remarkably manly man” Johns had effectively committed wrongthink. Rosenberg added that she was responsible for the edits, and they were undertaken “entirely to defend Jan’s reputation and to honour her memory, in particular her status as a champion for the trans community”.

In a statement, Johns and Maggie Fergusson, the former RSL director who commissioned the obituary, say they “deeply resent Molly Rosenberg impugning their professional integrity, and strongly dispute her claims”. The statement adds that Morris “would have powerfully objected to being described as ‘a champion for the trans community’”, and that “Molly Rosenberg never met Jan and knows nothing at all about her”.