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This item is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

Troubling gestures and postures have been on display recently, urgent-seeming causes, burning-seeming issues, that insist on speaking but dare not quite speak their name. They have political or ideological implications but avoid direct statement. To declare is to distort, they imply. Signals familiar to initiates are used. All will be revealed in time, they say. Meanwhile, we are left in the dark.

On 26 January fellows and honorary fellows of the Royal Society of Literature received an email signed jointly by the Chair and the Director of the RSL which began, ‘We are aware of a concerted campaign of disinformation concerning the RSL and our Review magazine.’ As a fellow, I was not aware of a campaign. ‘We strongly refute the false narrative being presented via emails and social media posts. We ask that you refrain from sharing this misinformation yourselves.’ Disinformation, misinformation: are they synonymous? ‘The RSL’s Council meets next month [i.e., in February] to discuss this matter, and to consider next steps regarding the damaging and false claims made.’ Of course, I immediately set out to uncover the occasion for this email.

In the four opaque email paragraphs that followed, there were clues – ‘this matter’ seemed to entail alleged censorship, the spiking of an article in the RSL Review, a delay in the publication itself, the dismissal of the seven-year, generally admired editor Maggie Ferguson. These allegations seemed substantial, and perhaps substantiated. Was it the case that the RSL’s leadership was reluctant, despite pressure from some fellows, formally to stand by Salman Rushdie after his injuries in the knife attack? Discussion ‘was closed down by the leadership, according to some who attended’.

The RSL insisted that an explanation would follow, the allegedly spiked article would appear. The delay had to do with reformatting… ‘The magazine is the only publication the RSL puts out annually – we want it to be the best it can be, and to speak to the widest possible audience. We therefore decided to move it forward to a new format and style that better reflects, and includes, our Fellowship and allows more space for conversations among them, and with other writers.’ I learned that the RSL was in the midst of a ‘wider brand refresh’. (When I was asked to join, I didn’t think the RSL was a brand.) It appointed a ‘new Communications team’ late in 2023. May it soon communicate.

On 27 January, a day after fellows received the email, the Guardian announced that ‘a major revolt among longer-term fellows is now threatening to destabilise the society. A council meeting of members next month will be forced to address a growing number of complaints.’ Some of those complaints began to clarify the RSL’s insistence that the magazine had to ‘better reflect, and include’ the new members of the fellowship. Marina Warner, a previous RSL president, told the Observer, ‘It is a question of a lack of respect for older members and a loss of institutional history, which was something fellows cherished.’ A new fellow exclaimed, ‘The society should not just be for a group of older, rather entitled, people, however distinguished. These problems had to be sorted quickly.’

Bernardine Evaristo, the RSL’s current president, insists that the society, far from being old-fashioned, is ‘very forward-looking, very progressive and committed to inclusion at every level’. Certainly it has ticked boxes to receive increased public subsidy. Some members are less sanguine than their president, however. The Observer reported, ‘The novelist and biographer Miranda Seymour recently resigned, and amid allegations of “scandalous” disregard for proper procedures, a number of members have told the Observer they are considering following suit. This comes after the resignation in 2018 of Piers Paul Read in response to an initial call for younger fellows.’ Other ‘allegations’ are not specified. Evaristo is clear: the RSL should be ‘for all writers, rather than traditionally writers who are white and middle class’.

The attempt to redress that imbalance resulted in sixty-two new fellows being inducted in 2023; changes to the ways members are recruited are proposed. ‘Currently, to be recognised with fellowship an author must be nominated by an existing fellow or honorary fellow before being considered by the RSL council and senior officers. Under the new process the public will be invited to recommend writers for fellowship and then a series of broader-based election panels will consider the recommendations. This is the sort of fundamental switch that unsettles writer Amanda Craig: “It used to be an enormous honour to become a fellow. But when people are just starting their writing careers, it is not the same.”’ Anne Chisholm, quondam chair, told the Observer: ‘Of course the RSL, like all venerable institutions, has an imperfect past: it needed to change with the times. My worry is that the pace and style of change has lately been alienating too many fellows and disrespecting the RSL’s history.’

Marina Warner did not resign despite unease with the direction the RSL is taking. She supports efforts to broaden the fellowship. ‘There were of course a lot of old, white liberals like me, for historical reasons, and while I was president we launched a drive to lower the average age. The problem is a fellowship used to mark an acclaimed career.’ She added, ‘And I was very disappointed too that we did not stand up more for Salman. It should have been nothing to do with his views, or even necessarily admiring his work.’

Bernardine Evaristo declared in the Guardian on 8 February that ‘no single group or demographic within the fellowship should feel they own’ the RSL. She insisted that it would have been improper for the RSL to make a public stand for Rushdie: ‘It cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues’ – as though there were two sides to an attempted knife murder on a writer, whoever that writer, or murderer, might be. If such are what Evaristo describes as the ‘governance protocols’ of the fellowship, they were not explained to me when I was ceremoniously inducted and signed the book with George Orwell’s pen.

This editorial was written before news of the RSL’s annual general meeting and its
outcomes broke in the news and on social media.

This item is taken from PN Review 276, Volume 50 Number 4, March - April 2024.

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