The Society of Authors (SoA) has distanced itself from its president Philip Pullman over comments he made in defence of Kate Clanchy, whose book has been accused of racialised stereotyping of children.
Clanchy is now rewriting sections of her Orwell Prize-winning 2019 book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (Picador) after being criticised on Goodreads and Twitter for the way she portrayed some children, including Black and autistic youngsters. Writers including Chimene Suleyman, Monisha Rajesh and Professor Sunny Singh have been racially abused online since making comments about her work.
Pullman, president of the SoA since 2013, had dismissed the criticism and defended the book as "humane, warm, decent, generous, and welcoming", also suggesting those who do not read a book before condemning it would "find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban". The latter comment, since deleted, was made in a reply to a tweet on a different subject which he thought was about Clanchy. On 10th August, he posted an apology for “causing harm” with his comments.
On the same day, chair of the Society of Authors management committee Joanne Harris and its c.e.o. Nicola Solomon sent an email to some of the organisation's committee members and others who had been receiving questions from authors, addressing the debate for the first time. The letter, seen by The Bookseller, said a lack of public comment by the body should not be taken for a lack of engagement or care for the authors who have spoken out. “We see the deep hurt that this has caused,” they said.
The letter quotes Singh, who, while questioning why she should trust the Society of Authors following Pullman's comments, tweeted: “UK publishing is a hostile environment for writers of colour. This is a structural issue not an individual one. However, it is perpetuated and reinforced by individuals and organisations.”
The SoA said it had no intention of being one of the those perpetuating organisations but added: “However uncomfortable we find it, as a member body, representing more than 11,500 authors of all types and from all backgrounds, we do not comment on what they should or should not write, draw, perform or translate.
“Philip Pullman is half way through his second and final five-year term as SoA President. President is an honorary position only: he does not play any part in the governance of the SoA (Joanne Harris is the chair of the democratically elected management committee, who set our strategic direction). Philip wrote his comments as an individual, not in the name of the Society of Authors.
“However, we do ask authors and the wider creative community to be mindful of privilege and of the impact of what they create, do and say. We work in industries rich in privilege. As an organisation and as a community, we need to find ways to help rebalance that. The way we approach such issues is as follows: we condemn any kind of racist, hate or unprofessional speech.”
The letter then points towards the organisation's professional code of behaviour in its dignity and respect policy and encourages members to make a complaint “if they are concerned about another member’s behaviour”.
It says: “We do not get involved in individual debates – or in disputes between authors. While we deplore bullying, trolling and ad hominem remarks, we don’t usually speak out publicly on individual cases of trolling, especially if we have not been asked by the author to do so, and particularly on social media which is not a sufficiently nuanced forum for such debates. However, we will always provide private support for authors targeted.”
The letter also states: “We believe passionately in inclusivity across publishing and all creative industries. We know that for many authors, this is not what they experience. There are systemic barriers in place that continue to harm the careers of authors of colour, as well as those from working-class backgrounds, those living and working with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and others who are underrepresented within the industry and who find themselves excluded in practice. We hope that our members have seen the SoA change over recent years as we work to become a more inclusive organisation in all our work.”
The letter comes after Singh questioned online why no one in the SoA aside from Harris had spoken out in the defence of her and fellow critics, or why no one had tried to rein in Pullman. Suleyman told the BBC yesterday that "bridges have been broken in the publishing world" over the incident and there would be "some way to go to rebuild this trust with their writers and readers of colour".
In his apology, Pullman tweeted: “The criticism that some people have made of Kate Clanchy's book is reasonable and balanced. I reacted in haste, and I should have taken longer to look into where it came from. I apologise for causing harm (not IF what I say has caused harm: I know it has). Writers of colour (including children) and people of colour who are not writers (including children, again), your experience and imaginations deserve every kind of respect.”
In a statement yesterday, the Orwell Foundation said it recognised "the concerns and hurt" caused by the book. It said: "The foundation understands the importance of language and encourages open and careful debate about all the work which comes through our prizes."
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