I will protect the Royal Society of Literature from any criticisms. It is thriving more than ever, according to Bernardine Evaristo.
In the past, I, as a black woman from a working-class background, noticed the disproportionate influence of the Oxbridge elite in literary events. This group not only held power in our country’s political sphere but also in its cultural realm.
Occasionally, I would clandestinely attend events, behaving as if I were an invader. I would swiftly circumnavigate the space and then slip away undetected. This was also my experience when I joined the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) in 2004. While some individuals were friendly, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I didn’t truly belong. This is a common narrative among writers I’ve met who don’t fit into the established circles that assume their own connections and sway.
Many organizations are currently facing the challenge of addressing long-standing and unjust power structures. I am glad to see that the RSL is taking on this challenge, especially with my upcoming presidency in 2022. During a recent encounter with an American writer, she expressed her belief that the RSL is a quaint organization where writers in Kensington casually enjoy tea and cucumber sandwiches while discussing poetry. However, I was pleased to prove her wrong. While the RSL does have a rich history dating back to 1820, it is also very much in line with modern times. It welcomes a diverse group of writers as fellows and provides various platforms, projects, and awards for them to freely share their unique ideas, creative practices, and political beliefs. Last year’s events ranged from the annual celebration of Virginia Woolf, Dalloway Day, to Black to the Future, a festival highlighting Afrofuturism.
Throughout most of its past, the RSL’s membership consisted of individuals from the highest social class. It took almost a century for females to be accepted as fellows, and I am the initial person of non-white ethnicity to be chosen as president. My predecessor, Marina Warner, was the first female to serve in this role. Additionally, I am the inaugural president who did not attend Oxford, Cambridge, or Eton for my education.
As the leader, I hold a symbolic role on the board of directors for the RSL, but I am not a member with fiduciary responsibilities. I am not part of the decision-making process, day-to-day operations, programming, or internal human resources matters. Nonetheless, as someone who is distressed by the unfounded allegations against an organization that holds great meaning to me, I feel compelled to express my personal opinions on the current situation.
Some criticisms against the RSL allege that older members are not being given enough attention, the caliber of its members has decreased, and there are restrictions on freedom of expression.
The society’s leadership positions are primarily held by individuals who are older, including myself. This includes the board of trustees and honorary presidents and vice-presidents, who do not have a say in the society’s affairs but are allowed to vote for lifetime fellowship elections. In 2018, the society introduced a one-time program called “40 Under 40” which aimed to recognize young individuals. However, at the time of its launch, there were only three fellows under the age of 40 compared to three over the age of 100. Currently, only 4% of the fellowship is under the age of 40, while over 55% is over the age of 65 and 34% is over 75. Is there discrimination against younger members? Clearly not.
The selection process for new fellows follows the same publication guidelines as before. Current fellows nominate candidates, and their nominations are reviewed and voted on by panels consisting of other fellows, trustees, vice-presidents, the president, and former presidents. The council, which holds the only constitutional authority, then ratifies the results of the vote. In certain cases, members of the public may have the opportunity to nominate writers who may not be well-connected in the London literary scene. However, the voting process remains unchanged.
Accusing others of lowering standards is a common strategy used by those who support the current system. Are the new appointees not qualified enough? This seems unlikely since they were selected through the same democratic process as always.
There is a popular belief that upon assuming the presidency two years ago, I effortlessly introduced a series of “radical” changes by wielding a magic wand. This is highly disrespectful to the past RSL trustees, chairs, and fellows who have actively worked towards promoting diversity within the fellowship, often through various initiatives. Some notable individuals include Lisa Appignanesi, Maggie Gee, the late Hilary Mantel, Colin Thubron, and Warner.
In regards to the topic of “freedom of speech,” it is evident that the current leadership supports this belief. However, the society’s main responsibility is to advocate for literature and not to portray itself as the sole voice of its 700 members, which can be a risky and unsustainable idea. The society cannot involve itself in writers’ disputes and matters but must maintain neutrality. The publication of the RSL Review, the society’s magazine, was delayed but will be released in its entirety shortly. Claims of censorship and cancellation are baseless.
It has been disheartening to see a constant stream of grievances, often in the form of aggressive emails, for many years now. These complaints have targeted the character and authority of the RSL’s exceptional director, Molly Rosenberg, and the excellent chair of the council, Daljit Nagra. No one should have to endure this, especially not two individuals responsible for the society’s current success. The leaders of the RSL have their responsibilities and while they may not please everyone, they are fulfilling their duties. They cannot cater to the demands of a particular group of fellows who expect special treatment that goes against the society’s established rules and regulations.
Being named an RSL fellow is a great privilege, but no particular group or demographic should claim ownership of it. Some of us may serve as guardians temporarily before passing the reins to others. It is important for all of us to show appreciation towards the organization that has bestowed this lifetime honor upon us, as they are doing valuable work in supporting and recognizing writers.
Bernardine Evaristo is both a writer of novels and the current leader of the Royal Society of Literature.
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