The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) has announced RSL 200, a five-year festival launched with a series of new initiatives and 60 appointments promoting and championing the diversity of UK writers. It comes as the charity celebrates its 200th anniversary.
Two new pens have also been added to the RSL’s collection for Roll Book signing, one from Andrea Levy, the first pen from a writer of colour, and the other from Jean Rhys. To mark the additions, five videos have been released featuring Adjoa Andoh, Natalie Simpson, Simon Callow, Juliet Stevenson and Richard Armitage.
Over the next two years, RSL Open will elect an unprecedented 60 new fellows from communities, backgrounds and experiences currently underrepresented in UK literary culture, including writers of colour, LGBTQ+ writers, writers from lower socio-economic backgrounds, writers who identify as having a disability and writers outside London, to ensure the diversity of the UK’s literary culture is reflected in its fellowship. Readers and writers from across the UK will be asked to recommend writers for nomination who will then be considered by a panel made up of some of the UK’s most prolific writers. Bernardine Evaristo (also announced today as a new RSL vice-president) will chair the panel, with Jay Bernard, Vahni Capildeo, Ian Duhig, Cynan Jones, Val McDermid, Daljit Nagra (also announced today as the new RSL chair), Nikesh Shukla, Ali Smith, Sinéad Morrissey, Jack Thorne (also announced today as a new fellow), Colm Tóibín (also announced today as a vice-president) and Eley Williams. The new fellows will be involved in judging prizes, outreach programmes and leading initiatives.
The RSL International Writers' programme will recognise the contribution of writers across the globe to literature in English, and the power of literature to transcend borders and cultures to bring people together. As with RSL Open, readers and writers will be asked to recommend writers outside the UK for nomination. Daniel Hahn (new RSL fellow) will chair a panel of fellows and honorary fellows including Lisa Appignanesi, Syima Aslam, Max Porter, Sasha Dugdale (new fellow), Philippe Sands (new fellow), Sophie Collins and Elif Shafak (new vice-president). The panel will nominate the RSL International Writers for election.
Evaristo said: "It’s so important to create new initiatives designed to help make our culture more inclusive for writers from underrepresented communities. There are so many stories waiting to be told and I’m looking forward to discovering and nurturing the next generation of talented writers through this mentoring award."
Hahn said: "As a translator, it's hardly surprising that I should think of literature as operating on an international scale, as a vast and (ideally) borderless thing, a network in which the writers over here can be immeasurably enriched by the writers over there. So I'm proud to be working with the RSL on its new international writers' scheme."
The charity has also announced that award-winning poet Daljit Nagra, a fellow of the society since 2017, has been appointed new chair of the council, succeeding Lisa Appignanesi, who has held the position since 2016.
Nagra said: "Becoming chair of the RSL is the greatest professional honour of my life. I look forward to continuing our work in celebrating the diversity and wealth of classic and contemporary literature. As literature finds new readers and as authors from underrepresented backgrounds continue to find a voice, the work of the RSL has never been more important in safeguarding literature’s broadening contribution to our lives."
Anita Desai, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Edna O’Brien, Philip Pullman and Colin Thubron have been made RSL Companions of Literature, receiving the highest award bestowed by the organisation. They are the first writers to be elected since 2012, and the greatest number appointed at any time in the RSL’s history. The Companions of Literature was inaugurated in 1961 and can only be held by up to 12 writers at any one time. The writers announced join Sir Michael Holroyd, Sir Tom Stoppard, Michael Frayn, Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.
Commenting on the appointment, Mantel said: "Over many years as a fellow of the RSL, I have been proud to see a venerable and learned body evolve into a forward-looking organisation, ready to play a full part in our national conversation. I am deeply honoured to be appointed a Companion of Literature. It puts a writer in the most distinguished company, living and dead, and it recognises and validates a lifetime’s work."
Meanwhile Simon Armitage, Mary Beard, Bernardine Evaristo, Jackie Kay, Blake Morrison, Grace Nichols, Elif Shafak, Kamila Shamsie and Colm Tóibín have today been appointed vice-presidents of the RSL. Becoming a vice-president is a lifetime honour bestowed on RSL fellows by the RSL council which provides them with lifetime voting rights in the fellowship elections. They are elected for their service to both the advancement of literature and to the society. Current vice-presidents include: Anne Chisholm OBE; Maureen Duffy, Benson Medallist; Maggie Gee OBE; The Hon Victoria Glendinning CBE; Dame Hilary Mantel; Sir Philip Pullman CBE; Claire Tomalin; and Jenny Uglow OBE, Benson Medallist.
Shafak said: "I feel a fellowship of writers is so important and so necessary. At first glance it might appear a bit contradictory because writers are solitary creatures. We’re used to working on our own, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t need solidarity, sisterhood, fellowship. We need to create open, democratic, egalitarian spaces, of diversity and inclusion, where every writer from every background, every race, culture and ethnicity and social class will be equally welcome, and will have an equal voice."
Twenty-nine new fellows have been announced. To be nominated, a writer must have published two works of "outstanding literary merit", and nominations must be seconded by an RSL fellow or honorary fellow. The following are announced today: Raymond Antrobus (To Sweeten Bitter, The Perseverance); Chloe Aridjis (Book of Clouds, Sea Monsters); Damian Barr (You Will Be Safe Here, Maggie & Me); Cressida Connolly (After the Party, The Happiest Days); Susan Cooper (The Dark is Rising, the Boggart trilogy); Jill Dawson (The Language of Birds, Fred & Edie); playwright April De Angelis (Jumpy, A Laughing Matter), poet and translator Jane Draycott (The Night Tree, Over), Sasha Dugdale (Deformations), Yvvette Edwards (A Cupboard Full of Coats, The Mother), Diana Evans (Ordinary People, The Wonder, 26a), Peter Frankopan (The Silk Roads, The First Crusade), Salena Godden (Fishing in the Aftermath); Colin Grant (Bageye at the Wheel); Kirsty Gunn (Caroline’s Bikini); Daniel Hahn (The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature); Kerry Hudson (Tony Hogan Bought Me An Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma); Andrew McMillan (Physical, Playtime); James Meek (Private Island); Kate Mosse (the Languedoc Trilogy, The Taxidermist's Daughter); Michael Palin (Hemingway’s Chair, The Truth), Sandeep Parmar ( The Marble Orchard, Eidolon); Winsome Pinnock (The Winds of Change, Leave Taking); Max Porter (Grief Is the Thing with Feathers); Sigrid Rausing (Mayhem); Roger Robinson (A Portable Paradise); Katherine Rundell (Rooftoppers, The Explorer); Philippe Sands QC (East West Street, The Ratline); and Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child).
Fifteen new honorary fellows, those who have made a significant contribution to the advancement of literature as publishers, agents, booksellers, librarians or producers have been elected in 2020. The new honorary fellows include: Melanie Abrahams FRSA, creative director of Renaissance One and Tilt and curator of CaribbeanFest and Black Arts World; Linda Anderson, professor of English and American Literature at Newcastle University; BBC radio producer Mair Bosworth; Tony Brown, who has worked for Islington Libraries since 1981 and co-founded the annual Islington Word Festival; Kate Gavron, chair of Carcanet Press and The Folio Society; literary agent David Godwin; chair of Virago Press Lennie Goodings; Andrew Holgate, literary editor of the Sunday Times; poet and director of Young Identity Shirley May; Ursula Owen, founder and director of Virago and Free Word; Marina Salandy-Brown, award-winning BBC journalist and founder and director of Bocas Lit Fest—the writer and reader development organisation in Trinidad and Tobago; Sarah Sanders, co-founder of Speaking Volumes Live Literature Productions; broadcaster and writer Tom Sutcliffe; journalist, editor and critic Boyd Tonkin; and former actor, professor of Cultural Studies, and head of culture at the Greater London Authority, Baroness Lola Young.
Young said: "As increased book sales indicate, many people finding themselves isolated and stuck indoors during this really difficult period, found comfort in a good read. The RSL is devoted to the celebration of great writing. To be elected an honorary fellow at any time is a huge honour: to be appointed in the year of RSL’s 200th anniversary feels extra special."
In honour of its 200th anniversary the RSL has today unveiled a new iteration of the Benson Medal, designed by Linda Crook. Founded in 1916 by scholar, author and RSL Fellow A C Benson, the Benson Medal honours service to literature across a whole career. This year the Benson Medal has been awarded to journalist, editor and critic Boyd Tonkin, who re-founded the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2001 and acted as the Man Booker International Prize special adviser between 2016-2019. Previous recipients include Philip Larkin, J R R Tolkien, Wole Soyinka, Diana Athill, Margaret Busby and Susheila Nasta.
Tonkin said: "I’m delighted to become an honorary fellow of the Royal Society of Literature: a recognition that comes from writers themselves, and one I deeply appreciate. And I feel both thrilled and privileged to be named as this year’s Benson Medallist by the society. When I look at the list of recent medallists, I see many of the distinguished figures who have done most to shape and guide my own understanding of literature in all its many forms and voices. To join this company of giants is an enormous honour."