As Britain’s oldest literary trade union, the Society of Authors has been renowned for its quiet but efficient advocacy for writers since 1884. But over the past year it has been the target of more furious denunciation than in all its previous years of existence put together.
The latest broadside launched at the SoA – which represents some 12,000 writers, illustrators and translators – comes from the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy, who was accused in August 2021 of using racist and ableist tropes in her memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.
She now alleges that the Chair of the SoA, the novelist Joanne Harris – author of the modern classic Chocolat – sent her a private message at the time “in an unclear semi-official capacity”, urging Clanchy to make a statement acknowledging “the harm that you have inadvertently caused . . . and that you hope to do better in the future”.
Clanchy – who was not at that time a member of the SoA – also alleges that Harris “caricature[d] me as ignorant, cruel and patronising” on Twitter, and has hired investigators to compile a forensic report of public allegations made against her by Harris and others. The SoA has said in response that the “serious allegations about the chair … should be fully investigated”, adding that “Joanne Harris strongly denies these allegations”.
This latest row follows Philip Pullman’s resignation from the honorary role of president of the SoA in March. Earlier this month he complained about “the assiduous work of the [SoA] management committee in examining my shortcomings and urging me to apologise for something I hadn’t done” when he was accused of racism after Tweeting that those who were condemning Clanchy without first reading her book might “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”.
First, I've always said loud and clear that I condemn threats of any kind, to anyone. That goes for people whose views I disagree with as well as those whose views I share. Free speech is for everyone, and when one person loses it, we're all at risk.
— Joanne Harris (@Joannechocolat) August 16, 2022
JK Rowling, too, has accused Harris of failing to stand up for writers who are being abused or threatened if she disagrees with their political views, and of advocating cancel culture. Harris denied this, tweeting: “I’ve always said loud and clear that I condemn threats of any kind, to anyone. That goes for people whose views I disagree with as well as those whose views I share.”
The first sign of disquiet with the SoA came in September last year when the publisher and writer Carmen Callil gave up her membership after nearly 30 years. “I felt I had to, because I couldn’t get them to budge on the fact that they should be defending Kate Clanchy and Philip Pullman when they were monstered on the internet,” she tells me.
According to Callil, the SoA is failing in its aim, as stated on its own website, to “protect free speech” and “oppose in the strongest terms… censorship, hate speech or inappropriate trolling.” It should be taking the lead in opposing the pusillanimity of publishers, she argues.
“Kate Clanchy’s publisher made her apologise immediately without giving a thought to it. I suggested – but I was ignored – that the Society of Authors should take a week or two to look into these things, and if the book is a quality work, whatever its faults, they should stick up for the author against the publishers who are just worried about upsetting Twitter.”
I asked Nicola Solomon, CEO of the SoA since 2011, what she makes of Pullman’s declaration that “something is very badly wrong with an organisation I used to be proud to belong to”.
“I have huge personal respect for Sir Philip and am grateful for his dedicated service as president but he is no longer a member of the SoA and therefore does not see our day-to-day work as I do,” says Solomon. “From my viewpoint I see an energetic, focused organisation that daily helps members in their professional lives.”
She denies reports that Pullman, while still SoA president, was “ordered” to attend diversity training in the wake of the racism row. “The training had been booked for months. Philip was invited to join it, along with all SoA staff, directors and group committee members.”
One anomaly that exercises the SoA’s critics is that while Pullman resigned over controversial remarks, Joanne Harris continues to be an unabashed tweeter of often inflammatory opinions. When one Tweeter recently described Rowling as “complicit with hate” and “a Trojan horse for bigotry”, Harris replied: “I agree completely.”
Opinion is divided over how much sway Harris holds in the SoA. The novelist John Boyne was unequivocal when he spoke to me recently: “I think 10 years from now the Society of Authors will look back in the same way that the Republican Party in America will look back at Trump and ask: why did they allow one person to dictate their policies even when they knew what was being done and said was morally wrong?”
But an open letter in support of Harris as “a stalwart, fair, dedicated, and passionate chair” has received hundreds of signatures. “She’s one of the country’s most famous authors in her own right, and nobody really thinks that when she tweets she’s speaking on behalf of the Society of Authors. They just don’t like what she says,” one member of the SoA, who asked to remain anonymous, tells me.
“I think her language is offensive sometimes, but so is the language of Kathleen Stock [the gender-critical philosopher] when she talks about Joanne having had an ‘undeclared’ trans child, as though her son was an illicit packet of fags. She is [judged to be] too biased because of what she tweets, and the next minute hiding her bias because her son was ‘undeclared’. She can’t win.”
Nicola Solomon points out that Harris – who has declined the offered annual remuneration of £7,500 since taking the chair – “is the unanimously appointed Chair of a member-elected Management Committee. Our overall strategic direction is set by the Committee. Joanne’s role as Chair is, like any other chair, to be one of 12 equals. She cannot act alone.”
Nevertheless a rival open letter calling for Harris to resign, organised by the writer Julie Bindel, has also received hundreds of signatures. One of Bindel’s more serious allegations is that “several [gender-critical] signatories have asked the society for help and not received it.”
Solomon states, however, that “we have investigated these allegations and found no cases where members asking for help in dealing with publishers or requesting advice were refused.” Part of the problem, she adds, is people expecting “an organisation whose expertise lies in small print – vetting contracts, lobbying government, giving grants and prizes” – to weigh in on matters outside its remit.
“Sadly, there has been an escalation in personal attacks on authors on social media, including for their beliefs, gender, race or sex. We condemn all such attacks unequivocally, but we do not have the resources to condemn each individually and we do not believe that it would be helpful to do so. We cannot police the internet.”
When your trade union gives you help in a legal dispute, but asks you to keep it “discreet”, as @Soc_of_Authors did in my right to claim my @Mslexia judging fee - they sacked me for signing the @jk_rowling letter of support - you don’t thank on Twitter. @Joannechocolat did zero.
— Amanda Craig (@AmandaPCraig) August 16, 2022
The novelist Amanda Craig remains unconvinced. “They didn’t speak out for years when JK Rowling was threatened, but when Salman Rushdie was attacked they were unhesitating in coming forward and speaking in support of him. If they’re not for all writers, then in my view they are for none.”
Craig admits that the SoA helped her in an attempt to recover a fee from a magazine that dropped her from a competition jury because of her opposition to trans pressure groups. But she “blew a gasket” when Harris referred to Craig’s case as evidence that she was not prejudiced against gender-critical women. “She had nothing to do with it – it was all Nicola Solomon. And [Harris] complained that I had never publicly acknowledged this help – but that was because Nicola Solomon asked me to be discreet about it, although I never understood why.”
I asked Callil what would need to happen for her to rejoin the SoA. “The instant resignation of Nicola Solomon and Joanne Harris, and a meeting of the Society of Authors in front of their membership in which they affirm that they will honour the commitment they’ve made to [defend] free speech.”
Craig is considering resigning too, “but I’m staying for now in the hope of voting Harris off. But I do know that Kate Clanchy’s now joined and I strongly suspect that she might want to stand herself. She’s certainly got the balls to do it.” The next chapters in this saga look set to be even more dramatic.