The working life of a professional writer is not exciting. You write. You read what you have written. You sigh. You try again until, with luck, something passable appears on the page or screen before you. Now and then – again, with luck – you get published.
Rows or bust-ups in the little world of books and writing tend to be small-scale affairs of little interest to the outside world. There was, for example, a heated debate recently among authors on Twitter as to whether the present tense was acceptable in novels. ‘AN ABDICATION OF NARRATIVE RESPONSIBILITY,’ thundered one revered author. What about John Updike? someone replied (me, as it happens). There was a buzzy to and fro in Twitter’s literary wing for a day or so, but it’s fair to say the debate didn’t exactly go viral.
So it has been an unusual development that in recent weeks and months, an inter-author spat has spilled into the outside world.
For most of us, it was rather confusing. JK Rowling was in there somewhere, as was Joanne Harris, the author of Chocolat and other bestsellers. The Society of Authors, an august organisation that is a sort of trade union for writers, was involved.
What exactly was at the heart of the disagreement? It was difficult to say in the swirl of passionately held views, often intemperately expressed, but transgender rights were at the heart of it and, on the other side, was what is known as the gender critical view that biological sex is an immutable fact. In close attendance, were more general issues of the moment – free speech vs responsibility, victims vs bullying, harassment, and so on.
It was the sort of knockabout show which has become familiar on social media. Activists whose writing experience didn’t extend beyond a 280-character tweet but who loved nothing better than an online rumble, soon joined in. The press began to take an interest. To an outsider, this must have been rather entertaining.
For some professional writers, though, there was a problem. There, in the thick of it, was the Society of Authors, one of the few organisations which advises those who write for a living and protects their interests in the increasingly perilous literary jungle. The society’s current chair is Joanne Harris, a tough and impassioned advocate of trans rights online.
She is also currently the chair of the management committee which runs Society of Authors. Her voice and that of the society’s have become conflated and, as passions ran high, it began to look as if the Society of Authors favoured the side of its chair. At one point during the row, the society put up on Twitter what must be the most patronising and insulting sentence that any professional body has directed at its own members. It tweeted,
‘Play nicely, children.’
These development concerned me. Times are as tough as they’ve ever been for authors. They need more than ever today the help of serious, level-headed, legally-minded experts – within the staff and among experienced authors – to defend their interests and offer advice. If, within the Society of Authors, some members were calling each other every name under the sun, while others were too fearful to speak their minds, its credibility as a dispassionate, welcoming friend to all authors was shot.
There was a background to this. A few months previously, the society’s president Sir Philip Pullman had spoken up on behalf of Kate Clanchy, whose prize-winning book Some Kids and What They Taught Me had been attacked for what was deemed insensitive language, and who has all her contracts cancelled by her publisher. Defending Clanchy put Pullman on the wrong side in the great culture wars. He received venomous criticism from activists, and quite soon he resigned his post. In a letter to Private Eye, he explained,
‘Instead of looking at the issue calmly, the society (through the management committee and its chair) immediately adopted a position of self-righteous neutrality (as it seemed to me), though more self-righteous than neutral.’
This great soup of contemporary issues – gender, race, bullying, free expression, class – was coming to the boil when last week the Annual General Meeting of the Society of Authors took place on Zoom.
I attended hoping, like many writers, that the society, which has been so stolid in support of authors in the past, would see the occasion as a chance to bring its members together in a spirit of solidarity and reconciliation. This surely was the moment for the organisation to show a bit of sensible leadership.
It did nothing of the sort.
Over an ill-tempered couple of hours, the ugliness of the online row was played out verbally. Words like ‘malicious’, ‘cynical’, ‘bad faith’ and ‘bigoted’ were bandied about. Two motions, one asking the Society to set up an enquiry into its attitude to free speech, the other demanding Joanne Harris stand down as chair, were defeated by about five to one. Those behind them were pursuing a right-wing agenda, it was said. One member suggested that in future time-wasting motions of this kind should be blocked.
It was unpleasant. I found myself remembering how helpful older authors had been when I first joined the Society of Authors, the sense of community when I wrote a column (collected here) for the house magazine The Author for several years. We were in it together and this solid, slightly dull and serious-minded establishment was a sort of home.
That image now seemed decidedly creaky, somewhat patronising and elitist, all rather twentieth century. In recent years, the Society of Authors has relaxed its membership criteria. Whereas once members were required to have written at least two published books, there is now a category called ‘emerging writers’, which welcomes those who hope to be writers in the future.
The result has been that the Society has had an image makeover. No longer grey, sober-sided and middle-aged, it is diverse, inclusive, skittish. It has hugely popular zoom meetings which feel like rather jolly creative writing courses. Its membership has swelled in number.
All of that is good, of course – a change of style was overdue. But, to judge by last week’s AGM, something has been lost. Tolerance, professionalism, seriousness. There’s a solidarity there but it’s only for writers who think in the accepted way. The rest are fair game.
I wrote about this on Twitter and was startled to be caught up in a flood of tweets and retweets, support and refutation. A lot of people felt as I did, and a lot disagreed. Some thought I was a bigot, one kind of phobe or another and a racist (I don’t quite get that one). Soon the great torrent of impassioned opinion joined other torrents (about gender, marxist-leninism, free speech, bullying) until the modest little argument I originally made – that the Society of Authors should not be for one faction – had disappeared into the internet’s great blue yonder.
A writer friend once said to me, ‘I can only work out what I think when I write it down.’ His words came back to me while I was working on this blog. I needed to work out what I think by writing it down.
The Society of Authors has done – and continues to do – important work. Personally, it has been a welcome presence in my life over the past few decades. Although I don’t think I have ever used its services as an author, the fact of its existence has been reassuring. It was a strong body and it was on the side of professional authors.
Now I’m not so sure. It looks as if it would be on my side – but only if I played nicely. Freedom of speech, it was said in last week’s AGM, is not one of its primary aims. The more I’ve thought about it, the more sinister I find the idea of a writers’ organisation in which writers are afraid to speak up because of the views they hold.
That feels like institutional intolerance to me. It makes some writers feel more isolated than ever. It is bowing to pressure on social media. I feel uncomfortable paying a subscription to a body which has failed to show leadership by rising above the clamour of culture warriors of one stripe or another. For that reason, and with great sadness, I have decided to resign my membership.
‘Don’t let the door catch yer arse on the way out now!’,
wrote someone on Twitter, nicely capturing the level of debate.