The Telegraph

Free speech is integral to good art

Published: 3 July 2024

The Royal Society of Literature no longer seems to be interested in free speech – which should be its touchstone. Like the Society of Authors, which lost many members in consequence, it was swept up by the same grey, threatening, censorious, self-righteous, puritan ideology known to its disciples as equality, diversity and inclusion and to its critics as wokery.

In 1820, King George IV, who had many deficiencies, but was clever and cultured, set up the Royal Society of Literature to “reward literary merit and excite literary talent”, and since then it’s chugged along, devoting itself to “the advancement of literature”. The criterion for being elected to its distinguished fellowship was to have produced two substantial literary works of “outstanding” merit.

I still remember the ecstatic reaction of my dear friend the novelist Jill Neville when she was elected in 1995. This acknowledgement by her peers validated all those years of labour for small financial rewards. It brought serious kudos.
Latterly, under the council chaired by the energetic novelist and free speech campaigner, Lisa Appignanesi, and successive presidents – the fine travel writer Colin Thubron and the multi-talented Dame Marina Warner, the first woman in that role – the Royal Society began a successful drive to rejuvenate itself through its ”40 under 40” scheme.

But after the poet Daljit Nagra succeeded Appignanesi as chair of a more diverse council, and Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker Prize winner and campaigner for inclusion of “writers and artists of colour” became the first black president, the pace of change became a gallop.

In August 2022, Appignanesi says that she and a group “including the former president, chairs and fellows” suggested after the attempted murder of Salman Rushdie that the Society have an evening of readings in his support, but was told that it was not a political organisation and therefore had to remain “impartial”. The direction of travel of the organisation further became clear when, in July 2023, it announced an “unprecedented change” to the election process for new fellows, along with many new appointments. The requirement to maintain standards seemed to vanish.

There has been an almighty uproar, which is why the Society’s council has referred itself to the Charity Commission and presumably why the home page now says: “The RSL upholds freedom of expression and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.

But it speaks to a wider crisis within the publishing world, which is being reshaped in the image of publishers’ inexperienced, woke staff. They hardly seem to care that “inclusive” literature can often be far less popular among readers than the pale, male and stale writers they are desperate no longer to publish.

I looked up the reactions of writers in 1989 when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his fatwa against Rushdie. The brilliant but nasty Roald Dahl said: “[Rushdie] knew exactly what he was doing and cannot plead otherwise. This kind of sensationalism does indeed get an indifferent book on to the top of the bestseller list – but to my mind it is a cheap way of doing it”.

It gave me a good laugh when recalling that Dahl’s own work has been heavily rewritten by sensitivity readers.

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