Royal Society of Literature refers itself to Charity Commission as authors pen petition | Books

Royal Society of Literature refers itself to Charity Commission as authors pen petition | Books

The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) has confirmed that it is referring itself to the Charity Commission after an open letter urging it to do so was signed by leading authors including Ian McEwan and Alan Hollinghurst.

The RSL, a charity which elects fellows based on literary merit, has been subject to criticism over recent months, including questions over changes to the way that fellows are elected, and the recent postponement of its annual magazine Review. Former editor Maggie Fergusson told the Times that the issue was pulled from print due to an article that was critical of Israel. It was also claimed that Fergusson was dismissed, although the RSL dispute this and say it had been previously understood that this would be her last issue of the magazine.

Fellows have also expressed their disappointment in the RSL for not taking a public stand in support of Salman Rushdie when he was stabbed in 2022. When RSL president Bernardine Evaristo wrote in this paper that the charity “cannot take sides in writers’ controversies and issues, but must remain impartial”, Rushdie responded on X: “Just wondering if the Royal Society of Literature is ‘impartial’ about attempted murder, @BernardineEvari? (Asking for a friend.)”

Both Evaristo and the RSL tweeted in response, clarifying that the line in the article had not been in reference to Rushdie, and Evaristo pointed out that the charity put out two statements about the attack.

Additionally, the RSL has come under fire for expanding its fellowship too quickly. In 2018, a new scheme was launched creating 40 new fellows under 40. Since Evaristo became president in 2021, 60 extra fellows have been appointed as part of the RSL Open initiative, which aims to redress the charity’s historical imbalance and elect fellows from communities, backgrounds and experiences under-represented in UK literary culture.

To be awarded a fellowship, authors must have written at least two “works of outstanding literary merit”. While that remains the case, some authors have questioned whether the honour has the same prestige when granted to writers early in their careers. Former president Marina Warner told the Observer in January: “It is a question of a lack of respect for older members and a loss of institutional history, which was something fellows cherished.”

In Evaristo’s Guardian column, she agreed that “to become an RSL fellow is a wonderful honour”, but added that “no single group or demographic within the fellowship should feel they own it.”

McEwan told the Guardian that “after all the cross fire through the heat and dust, there remain questions for many of us RSL Fellows concerning censorship, lack of transparency and the process by which new members are elected.”

“The failure of the RSL leadership to give unequivocal support to Salman Rushdie following the brutal attempt on his life was to inhabit a remote moral universe that most of us do not share,” he added. “An independent investigation by the Charity Commission seems the sensible course.”

A representative from the RSL said the charity had decided to refer itself to the Charity Commission earlier this month “due to the sustained campaign of misinformation being made against us”.

“There has been no attempt at censorship”, the representative said. “The process by which new Fellows are elected has been in the public domain since changes were announced in the summer as part of the RSL’s 200 year celebrations.”

“The Review was not cancelled and Maggie Fergusson was not sacked [as she has claimed],” the representative added. “The magazine, which has no set date for publication, will come out in the spring and Maggie’s freelance tenure expired by mutual agreement.”

The representative went on to say that when the RSL team members and chair were shown proofs of the annual magazine at the start of December, it was considered not to be “good enough” for print. “We discussed with the outgoing editor a number of issues – stylistic, editorial and tonal – including querying the context of a written piece that referenced the war in Gaza. There was never any suggestion of editing the piece … The piece in question will be published – unedited – when the new-look magazine comes out in the spring.”

The Council (board of trustees) is due to meet on Tuesday after which it will issue a statement.

This article was amended on 19 February 2024 to reflect that the RSL has told the Guardian that its Council decided to refer the society to the Charity Commission earlier this month, before the authors’ letter was published on 16 February.

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