An open letter, now signed by more than 950 figures from the industry, has condemned the abuse suffered by Monisha Rajesh, Professor Sunny Singh and Chimene Suleyman following their criticisms of Kate Clanchy, who is writing a new version of her book for the autumn with the help of "specialist readers".
The letter, written by Sabeena Akhtar with signatories including Candice Carty-Williams and Nikesh Shukla, was published by Bad Form on Wednesday morning (11th August). It describes how members of the writing and publishing community “watched in horror” as the three were “targeted, harassed and gaslighted online” after criticising language in Clanchy’s Orwell Prize-winning 2019 book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (Picador).
Clanchy is now rewriting sections of the book after being criticised for the way she portrayed some children, including Black and autistic young people. Picador said on 11th August it would "consult an appropriate group of specialist readers about the update and hopes to release a new edition in the autumn". It said: "To tackle the wider issues this experience has taught us about, we at Picador and Pan Macmillan are reviewing our editorial processes and considering how we implement more rigour in our assessment of manuscripts, including guidance for commissioning sensitivity reads, and more."
Suleyman, Rajesh and Singh were among those to have been racially abused online in recent days since making criticisms of the book. The Society of Authors, meanwhile, has distanced itself from Philip Pullman, who has been its president of the organisation since 2013, and who tweeted in support of Clanchy before later apologising.
Authors Juno Dawson, Kit De Waal, Joanne Harris, Max Porter and Kiran Millwood Hargrave are also among the signatories of the open letter. Literary agents including Emma Paterson of Aitken Alexander and Curtis Brown’s Cathryn Summerhayes have also signed in support, along with publishers such as Fourth Estate editorial director Kishani Widyaratna and Tara Tobler of And Other Stories, as well as authors and performers including Laura Dockrill and Josie Long.
The letter described how Rajesh, Singh and Suleyman were targeted by abuse after pointing out some of the passages in Some Kids as well as “questioning the structures and processes in wider publishing that allowed them to get through the editorial process, become published and then lauded”.
“We stand in complete solidarity with the brave writers who challenged this and condemn all attempts to attack them and obfuscate and negate the veracity of their concerns,” the letter reads.
“As members of the writing community, we are equally outraged by the use of such language and extremely concerned by our peers who have decided to use their power and influence in the industry to ignore and talk over women of colour and weaponise deeply troubling Islamophobic tropes against them, likening their actions to that of Isis or the Taliban. It should not need pointing out that such claims have far reaching consequences on the lives, safety and livelihood of people of colour, particularly this group of women who were already receiving threats and being targeted by far right trolls.”
The letter calls on the publishing industry to take action and condemns those who have stayed silent, saying: “We strongly condemn such behaviour and ask our industry what they will do to rectify this and protect marginalised writers from such harm? At a time when we profess commitment to diversity and inclusivity, why have we cultivated an industry where it is acceptable to target and ignore our colleagues who tell us that we are getting it wrong? Why has the writing community been largely silent in the face of three of its peers being harassed for a prolonged period of time and not mobilised to intervene or at least stand in solidarity?”
The signatories believe that the situation is symbolic of the industry’s wider problems with diversity. “This issue stands to serve as a microcosm of how marginalised writers are treated within the industry and it should be recognised that every one of us is noting the silences of our friends and colleagues, agents and publishers and the regard with which our concerns are treated.”
The letter concludes with a call to arms for the entire publishing world: “We cannot silently stand by whilst a group of marginalised women are being targeted by those with power and influence in this industry. We urge our colleagues to speak up and use the resources and influence in their gift as a force for change. Publishing must do better.”
In a statement on 11th August, Pan Macmillan condemned the abuse the critics of its imprint's book had received and apologised. It said: "We have been appalled at the ongoing abuse and harassment of many - including the women of colour, Monisha Rajesh, Prof Sunny Singh and Chimene Suleyman - who have taken the time and emotional energy to voice their concerns online.
"We acknowledge our part in a wider structural and cultural problem in publishing, which contributes to an environment where marginalised voices are often silenced, attacked or misrepresented.
"We apologise for the suffering they have experienced and we recognise that we haven’t done enough to enable a safe space for underrepresented individuals and communities to speak without fear of condemnation and endangerment.
"We will use our position and influence to call out and condemn hate speech of any kind, to listen to and amplify the voices of marginalised groups and play an active role in the conversation.
"We continue to hold ourselves accountable to the diversity and inclusion pledges we have made, and the necessary work we still need to do as an industry. We will continue to educate ourselves and work with our community groups and partners to do better."
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