I will defend the Royal Society of Literature against all attacks. It is more alive than ever | Bernardine Evaristo

I will defend the Royal Society of Literature against all attacks. It is more alive than ever | Bernardine Evaristo

Years ago, as a black woman from a working-class background, I quickly became aware of how literary happenings were dominated by one particular group: the Oxbridge elite, who not only controlled our country’s politics but also its culture.

Sometimes I’d sneak into events as if I were an intruder, do a quick lap around the room, and sneak back out again. It was the same when I became a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) in 2004. It’s not that some people weren’t welcoming, but I felt I didn’t really belong there. This is a familiar story for many writers I’ve encountered who do not fit into an establishment that takes for granted its networks of power and influence.

The challenge facing many institutions today is how to tackle the entrenched and unfair hegemonies of the past. I’m pleased to see that the RSL has embraced this challenge, especially with my appointment as president in 2022. I recently met an American writer who told me she imagines it’s a twee little organisation whose writers sit in Kensington drawing rooms sipping tea while nibbling on cucumber sandwiches and discussing romantic poetry. I was very pleased to overturn her assumptions. While it is indeed a historic institution, founded in 1820, it is also thoroughly in tune with the 21st century. Today, an ever-expanding plurality of writers become fellows and freely express their individual ideas, creative practices and political opinions through its multiple platforms, projects and awards. Last year’s events ranged from the annual homage to Virginia Woolf, Dalloway Day, to Black to the Future, an Afrofuturist festival.

For much of its history, the RSL’s fellowship was drawn from the top strata of society. It took nearly 100 years for women to be admitted as fellows, and I was the first person of colour to be elected president. My predecessor, Marina Warner, was the first woman to hold the post. I am also the first president who was not educated at Oxford, Cambridge or Eton.

As president, I am the figurehead but not a trustee on the board that governs the RSL. I am not involved in decision-making, daily business, programming or internal HR affairs. However, as someone upset by the false accusations currently being levelled at an organisation I care deeply about, I feel compelled to share my personal thoughts on what’s been going on.

The attacks on the RSL include claims that older members are being sidelined, that the quality of its fellows has declined, and that it is curbing freedom of speech.

First, then, the age thing. Most of the key roles at the society are filled by older people, including myself, from its board of trustees, to the honorary appointments of presidents and vice-presidents, who have no say in its affairs but who are allowed to vote in fellowship elections for life. When the society’s 40 Under 40 one-off scheme was launched in 2018, there were as many fellows over 100 (three) as there were under 40. Even today, only 4% of the fellowship is under 40, while more than 55% of it is over 65 – and more than 34% is over 75. Sidelined? Clearly not.

Next, the quality of new fellows. The truth is that the system for appointing fellows adheres to the same publication rules as before. Existing fellows make nominations that are discussed and voted on by panels of fellows, trustees, vice-presidents, president and presidents emeriti. The results of the vote are then ratified by the only group to hold constitutional power, the council. For some schemes, members of the public sometimes get the chance to nominate writers who might otherwise be overlooked because they are outside the elite London literary networks. But the voting system remains the same.

The charge of lowering standards is a familiar tactic leveraged by those invested in the status quo. So, are recent appointees “not good enough”? Why wouldn’t they be, given that they are chosen in the same way as ever, through the fellowship democratic process?

One media myth circulating is that, on becoming president two years ago, I somehow swept in, waved a magic wand and insisted on all kinds of “radical” new measures being implemented. This is massively insulting to previous RSL trustees, chairs and fellows who supported diversifying the fellowship, sometimes with schemes. Among them are Lisa Appignanesi, Maggie Gee, the late Hilary Mantel, Colin Thubron and Warner.

Finally, to the matter of “freedom of speech”. There’s no question that the current leadership believe in this. However, the society has a remit to be a voice for literature, not to present itself as “the voice” of its 700 fellows, surely a dangerous and untenable concept. It cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues, but must remain impartial. As for the society’s magazine, the RSL Review, its publication was postponed, and it will appear soon, in full. Accusations of censorship and cancellation are unfounded.

It has also been very upsetting to witness a barrage of complaints via sometimes bullying emails going back years, challenging the integrity and authority of the RSL’s exceptional director, Molly Rosenberg, and outstanding chair of council, Daljit Nagra. No one should have to put up with this, least of all two people who are overseeing such a successful era for the society. The RSL’s leadership has a job to do and, although it cannot please everyone, it is doing its job. 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.

To become an RSL fellow is a wonderful honour, but no single group or demographic within the fellowship should feel they own it. Some of us are guardians for a while, before graciously moving on and allowing others to steer the ship. We should all want to confer goodwill on an organisation that has bestowed a lifetime honour on us – and is doing such important work supporting and celebrating writers.

  • Bernardine Evaristo is a novelist and president of the Royal Society of Literature

  • Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a response of up to 300 words by email to be considered for publication in our letters section, please click here.

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