Bernardine Evaristo defends Royal Society of Literature over ‘false accusations’ | Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo defends Royal Society of Literature over ‘false accusations’ | Bernardine Evaristo

Bernardine Evaristo, the president of the Royal Society of Literature, has launched a staunch defence of the organisation, which she says has been subjected to “false accusations” of ageism, censorship and lowering standards.

In an article for the Guardian, Evaristo, who won the Booker prize in 2019, wrote that “accusations of censorship and cancellation” at the 200-year old institution were unfounded, after a spate of articles suggesting that there was a “major revolt” by established members that was threatening to destabilise the organisation.

The author admitted she had been upset by claims that since she became president in 2022 she had “waved a magic wand and insisted on all kinds of ‘radical’ new measures”, which had led to older members feeling sidelined, ushered in a crackdown on free speech and overseen a decline in the quality of new fellows.

Evaristo said the accusations of ageism within the RSL were inaccurate. She wrote that most of the key roles within the society were filled by older people and the vast majority of the membership was over 40. “Even today, only 4% of the fellowship is under 40, while more than 55% of it is over 65 – more than 34% is over 75,” she wrote. “Sidelined? Clearly not.”

Some members, including Dame Marina Warner, who was president from 2017 to 2021, have criticised the RSL’s “autocratic” leadership – primarily the organisation’s chair, Daljit Nagra, and its director, Molly Rosenberg.

Evaristo wrote that despite criticism of the leadership by prominent members “no single group or demographic within the fellowship should feel they own [the RSL]”. She defended Nagra and Rosenberg, calling them “outstanding” and “exceptional” respectively.

The main disagreement stemmed from the RSL not making public stands in support of Salman Rushdie, after a knife attack in 2022, and Kate Clanchy, who was dropped by her publisher after she was accused of using racial stereotypes in her work. “It cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues,” wrote Evaristo, saying the organisation “must remain impartial”.

Evaristo added that the RSL, “cannot please everyone … nor can it be expected to mete out preferential treatment to a select group of fellows who make demands that override its own governance protocols”.

Some RSL fellows have publicly claimed that by inviting a new cohort of fellows to the organisation it has become “diluted”, while the writer Philip Hensher said the move to expand the membership had meant some of the new intake “are, one, expensively educated and privileged, and two, not very good”.

Evaristo said the charge that the RSL was lowering standards by nominating a new group of fellows who sat outside “the elite London literary networks” was a “familiar tactic leveraged by those invested in the status quo”, while she maintained the RSL was “thoroughly in tune with 21st the century”.

She also struck a conciliatory tone, appealing to the RSL’s critics to “confer goodwill on an organisation that has bestowed a lifetime honour on us – and is doing such important work supporting and celebrating writers”.

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