The Royal Society of Literature has doubled its usual intake of fellows, appointing Neil Gaiman and Naomi Alderman among others.
The 31 new fellows were introduced to the RSL in a ceremony in central London’s Bloomsbury on Monday evening (4th June).
Meanwhile, publishing figures including Profile Books m.d. Andrew Franklin, Hay Festival director Peter Florence and Nick Barley, Edinburgh International Book Festival director, were recognised as honourary fellows for 2018.
Newly introduced fellows signed the RSL roll book using either T S Eliot’s foundation pen, Byron’s pen or, for the first time, George Eliot’s pen – marking the first time in RSL’s history of almost 200 years that a pen belonging to a female writer was used for the initiation ceremony.
The society revealed that an “unprecedented” number of fellows were introduced this year with more than twice the usual number of appointments of 14.
Fellowship election is billed as a “uniquely prestigious literary honour, awarded by writers to writers”, with the current number of fellows totting up at 500. To be considered, a writer must have published at least two works of outstanding literary merit, or the equivalent material.
Joining The Power author Alderman and Gaiman as the new RSL fellows for this year were authors Mojisola Adebayo, Julia Copus, Amanda Craig, Tim Dee, Julia Donaldson, Louise Doughty, Ken Follett, Mohsin Hamid, Frances Hardinge, Anthony Horowitz, Philip Kerr, Nikita Lalwani, Nell Leyshon, Ben Markovits, Annalena McAfee, Eimear McBride, Pauline Melville, Charlotte Mendelson, David Morley, Neel Mukherjee, Pascale Petit, Adam Roberts, Polly Samson, Frances Stonor Saunders, Bryan Talbot and Louise Welsh.
Julia Donaldson, Naomi Alderman (© Justine Stoddard) and Eimear McBride (© JMA Photography)
Donaldson revealed delight with using Eliot's pen but suggested that the encroaching digital world could see a different ceremony in the future.
"It’s a great honour to be a fellow, especially among such distinguished company and for me, the rest bit was getting to use George Eliot’s pen, because I’m a big George Eliot fan," she told The Bookseller. "I do worry a bit about in 10 years time, we won’t have our pens, we’ll just have to use our screens."
McBride told The Bookseller that having a collective such as the RSL provided "strength" for writers.
"I think especially in troubled times it’s important to have a professional body, people you share a lot of important values with - and probably a lot of important differences with as well - and that you can exist under the same roof at the same time, I think there’s strength in numbers," she said.
Of her fellowship, McBride revealed that she was "very surprised".
"I expected that sort of thing happened later in one’s career but was incredibly delighted and to be recognised in a body of your peers like this, there’s nothing quite like that, it’s different to winning awards and things like that, it’s a lovely feeling," she said.
Meanwhile the honourary fellows, including publishers, agents and booksellers, were selected after providing “special service” to the society or contributing to the advancement of literature.
Along with Franklin, Florence and Barley, the new rosta of RSL Honorary Fellows for 2018 included Bloodaxe Books editor Neil Astley, Arvon chief executive Ruth Borthwick, Bloomsbury co-founder Liz Calder, Everyman’s Library publisher David Campbell, Investments director at Rathbones Colin Chisholm as well as writer, editor and professor Kwame Dawes.
Andrew Franklin, Peter Florence and Nick Barley
Other honourary fellows included the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society’s deputy chief executive Barbara Hayes, former literary agent Derek Johns, British Library chief executive Roly Keating, QC and author Helena Kennedy, Peepal Tree's founder and managing editor Jeremy Poynting, writer Dick Russell and Nathalie Teitler, director of the Complete Works Poetry initiative.
Calder was also honoured with this year’s Benson Medallist, for exceptional contribution to literature.
Barley told The Bookseller: "The RSL has been part of my professional life as soon as I started.
"I’ve known what an important organisation it is for writers, and the fact that it is a group of writers who recognise each other, has always been very special for me, and that’s what makes it particularly important for me - to be recognised by writers in my work in trying to support writing. It really means a lot that it’s writers who have bestowed this honour of an honouraty fellowship on me."
Following the presentations and president Marina Warner’s address, actor Samantha Bond performed works celebrating the late Helen Dunmore, as well as some of Eliot's writing, marking the introduction of her pen.
The Society also paid tribute to Philip Kerr, who died in March this year. He had only accepted his fellowship at the beginning of the year.
A group of 40 new Fellows (under the age of 40) will be introduced by the RSL for the first time on 27th June, after the new programme to “bring different perspectives” was revealed last summer.