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27 February 2024

The Royal Society of Literature has failed us

As a former chair of the RSL, it is sad to see its mission being undermined by a new censoriousness.

By Lisa Appignanesi

We live in an uncertain and anxious world fuelled by polarising online anger and algorithms that reduce thought into a choice between false certainties. Within all this, the language of the culture wars, buoyed by rules and legalisms, can be used to veil not only our fears and hopes, but our worst coercive and managerial tendencies. We have all seen the process at work in institutions large and small.

The current strife at the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) seems to me to be an example of just this. It’s a pernicious process squeezing perception into simplified antagonistic categories – old vs young, white vs diverse – and enforcing a bureaucratic rule-bound censoriousness. This is hardly calculated to make a fellowship of writers, ever a multifarious and outspoken lot, feel sanguine about their elected or administering cohort.

When the latest issue of the annual RSL Review, written by and principally for an RSL Fellowship made up of some 670 leading writers in all genres, was pulled at the end of 2023 by the RSL director, trouble erupted. The director purportedly wanted a brief section of it, dealing with Palestine, removed. The highly experienced editor of the Review, herself a former director of the Fellowship, informed contributors, among whom I was one, that her editorship would not continue. It was not clear at that point whether the issue was to be axed along with the editor’s job or, as we were subsequently told in an email to RSL fellows, “postponed”, so that a “changing roster of authors” could “curate” the magazine and transform it from one that purportedly represented only the “RSL view”. The forthcoming issue would, apparently, still include the article in question. An RSL representative told the Guardian on 19 February that “Maggie’s freelance tenure expired by mutual agreement”.

Much of this was a little difficult to comprehend. Were curators to displace this or any editor? And what was this collective “RSL view”? Apart from caring about writing, writers have so many views, even within themselves, that the singular was perplexing. Was this an intended smear against the RSL as an institution? Or an attack on a perceived “old guard”? If so, the issue was a strange target for such criticism: it had a cover featuring Ocean Vuong, contained pieces by Zadie Smith, the RSL president Bernardine Evaristo, a number of writers on the “Soul of Windrush” and a range of authors, who if they weren’t dead and remembered in obituaries, were certainly younger than me.

Curiouser and curiouser… particularly since when writers, fellows, former presidents and vice-presidents wrote to the RSL chair and to voice concerns to the council, we were told in no uncertain terms to “CEASE AND DESIST PLEASE” or to file complaints via forms on the website, which sent you into a six-week delaying loop. The tones were those of legal menace. Writers do not warm to being threatened and silenced.

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The abruptness of the change to the magazine and the treatment of its respected editor might not have caused quite so much unrest among fellows if it hadn’t been preceded by prior acts of managerial censoriousness. One stands out. When many of us – including the former president, chairs and fellows – had asked that an evening of readings be held in support of Salman Rushdie just after the 12 August 2022 assassination attempt on his life, we were told the RSL was not a political organisation and couldn’t undertake such an event. In an article in the Guardian on 8 February Evaristo explained that although the society’s leadership believed in “freedom of speech”, it “cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues, but must remain impartial”. The article did not refer to Rushdie. But Rushdie, who was repeatedly stabbed, hideously injured, and lost an eye, tweeted, “Just wondering if the Royal Society of Literature is ‘impartial’ about attempted murder?” (Evaristo pointed out that she had tweeted in support of Rushdie, as had the RSL, which sent “thoughts” and “strength” to him and his family.)

I was chair of the RSL from 2016 to 2020, first with the wonderful Colin Thubron as president, then with Marina Warner, the first woman president in the RSL’s 200-year history. We had worked hard to bring in a wide range of brilliant fellows, including through the “40 under 40” scheme launched, under the capable handling of Kamila Shamsie, to rejuvenate what was indeed becoming an aging society. We introduced an International Fellows rubric. I brought the excellent Bernardine Evaristo onto a diverse council that also included, among others, the Nobel Prize Winner Abdulrazak Gurnah. Diversity is no new event in the RSL’s long life. But in a fellowship dedicated to the “advancement of literature”, when elected fellows sign in with a choice of pens which belonged to Byron, George Eliot, and other greats, it would void the society of meaning to have fellowship awarded without estimable achievement fixed at two works of outstanding merit – as many understood, perhaps from confusing messaging on the website, would be the future case.

Happily, after some two months of growing protest and discontent, a recent statement from the RSL press office on behalf of the council, which met to confront the controversy, answers a fair part of the criticism. The RSL magazine is to go ahead with its current copy intact and appear in the spring. The by-laws for entry to the society remain what the constitution has set down. There is affirmation that the RSL upholds freedom of expression and Article 19 of the Declaration of Human Rights and salutes Rushdie’s “dedication to freedom of thought and expression”. All this is to the good. The council, a body of brilliant writers, should have been called in to state its views and give direction far sooner.

Our old, “learned” institutions are bastions of civil society, homes of open, even if heated, debate, discussion, and, one hopes, respect for fellows. We have failed to act in a spirit of fellowship. Of course, both fellows and the society change through time. They must! But if that change is in the direction of bureaucratic censoriousness and silencing, it undermines the very meaning of that fellowship and the literature which is its raison d’être.

This piece was updated on 28 February to include a response from the RSL, which is as follows:

The council of the RSL has reviewed in detail the claim that a piece submitted to the Review which mentioned Palestine was censored, and have found no evidence to support it. The council issued a statement on 21 February which explained “there were reasonable grounds for delaying the publication of the annual Review in December” and that the RSL “does not condone or practise censorship”. The council further reviewed claims of threatening behaviour and found that the RSL executive and some members of the council have been the victim of such threats, not the perpetrators.

[See also: Inside the Royal Society of Literature’s civil war]

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