Sarah Perry, Welcome to Lagos author Chibundu Onuzo and award-winning translator Deborah Smith are among those appointed to the Royal Society of Literature’s (RSL) inaugural 40 Fellows under the age of 40 scheme, three-quarters of which is comprised of women.
Everyday Sexism founder Laura Bates, short story writer Eley Williams and novelist Ross Raisin were also honoured at the ceremony at the British Library in central London on Wednesday evening (27th June). The event was attended by HRH The Duchess of Cornwall in her first appearance as the Society’s new patron.
The RSL said it was “delighted by the diversity of writers elected and the diversity of literary forms their writing represents." The new intake contains 73% female writers with 30% of the new fellows from BAME backgrounds, according to the society’s data.
The list “truly honours the diversity of writers working in Britain today, and redresses the imbalances of yesteryear" according to RSL vice-chair Bernardine Evaristo. Meanwhile fellow panel member Sarah Waters said the scheme made RSL "so much more reflective of the fantastic diversity of writers to be found in the UK today".
The initiative was launched last summer to honour the achievements of Britain’s younger writers and introduce a new generation to the Society’s existing Fellowship of more than 500. Previously the average age of fellows was 70 with only three under the age of 40 and none under 30.
Joining Onuzo, Perry (pictured) and Raisin are novelists Adam Thirlwell, Evie Wyld, Gwendoline Riley, Amy Sackville and Barney Norris as well as Jenn Ashworth, Nadifa Mohamed, Sunjeev Sahota and Sara Taylor. Attrib author Williams is joined by fellow short story writer and novelist Irenosen Okojie.
A cluster of poets are also represented including Emily Berry, Sophie Collins, Inua Ellams, Sarah Howe, who is also an academic, and Warsan Shire as well as newly crowned Northern Writers’ Awards winner Helen Mort.
The strong showing of theatre writers includes "Enron" creator Lucy Prebble, James Graham, Robert Icke, Polly Stenham, Lucy Kirkwood and Vinay Patel as well as Bola Agbaje, also a screen writer, and Lucy Caldwell, also a novelist, along with playwright and director Ella Hickson.
Writer and performer Sabrina Mahfouz has also been elected while Deborah Smith, translator of Man Booker International-winner The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), is joined by fellow translator Rosalind Harvey, along with author and teacher Kei Miller.
Biographer and critic Edmund Gordon is one of the non-fiction authors joining under the new scheme along with Bates: they are joined by non-fiction author and academic Daisy Hay, as well as Lara Feigel and Rachel Hewitt, both historian and writers. Other fellows elected to the scheme include graphic novelist Hannah Berry and writer, film-maker and artist Jay Bernard.
A quarter of those newly elected are theatre writers compared to 2.8% of RSL fellowship before the scheme was introduced while 22% are poets, including doubling the previous percentage of fellows (12%). Meanwhile 5% of the Under 40 fellows are translators compared to 0.6% of RSL fellowship previously, with many of the new fellows combining a number of disciplines.
The nominations were considered last autumn by a panel of Fellows, including Evaristo and Waters, considered recommendations and writing samples submitted by literary agents, publishers, arts organisations, writer development agencies, theatres and writers, before the group nomination went to the RSL Council and its v.p.s. The panel was chaired by Kamila Samsie and included Ali Smith, Blake Morrison, David Hare, Tahmima Anam, Lisa Appignanesi, Helen Edmundson, Lavinia Greenlaw, Alexandra Harris, David Hare and Daljit Nagra along with Waters and Evaristo.
Evaristo described the society as “progressive and forward-looking, and the 40 Under 40 initiative truly honours the diversity of writers working in Britain today, and redresses the imbalances of yesteryear”.
“I’m particularly excited that we selected so many women and BAME writers on the basis of their outstanding talent; writers whose voices will not only reinvigorate the RSL but who represent the fantastic new energies in literature today,” she said.
One of the newly elected fellows, Patel, described how he hoped he could “use this position to help others feel like this country’s literary heritage is theirs to own, indulge in and play with”.
RSL chair Appignanesi said: “We know these young writers will invigorate the Society’s ranks as it approaches its 200th birthday. We also know they will infuse society as a whole with their flair and brio, their literary artistry and the passion of their ideas."
Meanwhile Smith described the list as “full of life, a revivifier for any reader anywhere near this vitally representative revelation of what’s happening in writing right now in the UK, a curtainraiser for the next decades of the RSL, and a chance to celebrate the place where generation and regeneration come together to make a vision of thought, form and practice that’s truly contemporary”.
Waters said: “I’ve always felt extremely proud of being a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature; the 40 Under 40 project makes me feel even prouder, because it renders the Fellowship so much more reflective of the fantastic diversity of writers to be found in the UK today."
Earlier this month, the RSL doubled its usual number of traditional Fellows to 31 with Neil Gaiman and Naomi Alderman among those honoured. President Marina Warner used her address at the event to warn of the increasing pressures on authors' "morality".