Society of Authors distances itself from Philip Pullman’s tweets

The Society of Authors (SoA) has asked the writers it represents “to be mindful of privilege and of the impact of what they create, do and say” in an email to committee members responding to the recent criticism of Kate Clanchy’s 2019 Orwell-prize winning book, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.

In the email, which has since been made public, the SoA also distances itself from comments made by its president Philip Pullman on Twitter. The His Dark Materials author had defended Clanchy, whose descriptions of children of colour and autistic children in particular, have been widely criticised on Goodreads and Twitter in recent days.

Pullman, who has been the SoA’s president since 2013, praised Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me, calling it “humane, warm, decent, generous, and welcoming”. In a now deleted comment, made in response to a tweet he wrongly thought to be about Clanchy, he wrote that those who do not read a book before condemning it would “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”. Authors of colour who criticised Clanchy, including Chimene Suleyman, Monisha Rajesh and Sunny Singh, went on to receive racist abuse from social media users. Pullman has now tweeted an apology for the harm he caused, admitting that his tweet was a “mistake”.

“Writers of colour (including children) and people of colour who are not writers (including children, again), your experiences and imaginations deserve every kind of respect” he added.

The email from the SoA emphasised that “Philip wrote his comments as an individual, not in the name of the Society of Authors”, and that “President is an honorary position only: he does not play any part in the governance of the SoA”.

Joanne Harris, chair of the Society of Authors
Joanne Harris, chair of the Society of Authors. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

It also stated “We do not get involved in individual debates – or in disputes between authors” but that “we condemn any kind of racist, hate or unprofessional speech.” The union encouraged members to make a complaint if they are concerned about another author’s behaviour.

The email quoted Sunny Singh’s tweet which stated “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”, adding “we have no intention of being one of the organisations that perpetuates it.”

Joanne Harris, chair of the SoA’s democratically elected management committee, said “it has been very hard for some of the SoA staff to follow what has been happening on Twitter without breaking our policy of not commenting on social media disputes. Philip and I have both expressed our personal opinions on Twitter, rather than in our official capacity.”

“As Chair of the SoA,” she added, “I’d like to emphasise that not only do we deplore racism and prejudice in all its forms, but all our policies are active policies – they exist to make a real difference for people, and not just as words on a website.”

An open letter, written by the editor and writer Sabeena Akhtar, has today been published by Bad Form, a literary review by and about Black, Asian and marginalised community writers.

“As members of the writing and publishing community we have watched in horror as three of our colleagues, Monisha Rajesh, Professor Sunny Singh and Chimene Suleyman have been targeted, harassed and gaslighted online for rightly pointing out the use of dehumanising, ableist and racist language and questioning the structures and processes in wider publishing that allowed them to get through the editorial process, become published and then lauded. We stand in complete solidarity with the brave writers who challenged this and condemn all attempts to attack them and obfuscate and negate the veracity of their concerns”, it begins.

The letter goes on to say “we cannot silently stand by whilst a group of marginalised women are being targeted by those with power and influence in this industry. We urge our colleagues to speak up and use the resources and influence in their gift as a force for change. Publishing must do better.”

At present, the letter has more than 150 signatories, including writers Nikesh Shukla, Candice Carty-Williams, Sara Collins and Jessie Burton, comedians Nish Kumar and Deborah Frances-White and publisher Kishani Widyaratna.

Suleyman’s publisher Unbound has published a statement on Twitter, condemning the “shameful racist attacks on women writers of colour”. Dialogue Books, the imprint of leading publishing house Hachette that spotlights the LGBTQ+, disability, working class and black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, has also put out a statement. “Dialogue condemns the racist treatment of people of colour, particularly women of colour, on social media over the past week. The publishing industry must learn from the response and the fallout”, it said.

On Tuesday, Clanchy confirmed that she will rewrite sections of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Her publisher Picador released a statement apologising for the “emotional anguish” caused by the book, but has not yet made any further comment.

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