It is a literary dispute that threatens to consume the very organization set up to protect the rights of authors. And, despite the involvement of three prominent names in children’s books, it has already caused outbursts of unmistakably adult fury.
Creator of Harry Potter, JK Rowling, Philip Pullman, author of Its dark materialsand poet Kate Clanchy, are among the cast of the drama that continues to rock the Society of Authors, not to mention Joanne Harris, author of the bestselling novel Chocolatewho chairs the company’s management committee.
This weekend new claims surfaced that the SoA, Britain’s largest union of published writers, illustrators and translators, is wrongly taking sides in divisive cultural disputes. Clanchy, an author who was heavily criticized last summer for the language used in her memoir about her years as a teacher, is speaking to a lawyer about her legal position, she revealed to the Observer. She and her supporters, including publishing dean Carmen Callil, are also calling for an independent report on the company’s processes.
Clanchy maintains that she was personally targeted, both by the organization and individually by Harris, because her publisher Picador withdrew support for her Orwell-winning book. his memoirs, Some Children I Taught and What They Taught Me, has since been reissued by Swift Press in revised form. It contained descriptions of some of the children in Clanchy’s classes which were later seen as stereotypical or derogatory. His tone has also been called condescending.
Clanchy apologized for any offense caused and edited her work. She has since spoken of a period of poor mental health caused by the impact of the incident.
“Writers have always been vile to each other, but they were vile in dark corners. Now he’s popping up everywhere,” Clanchy said over the weekend. “I don’t believe the Society of Authors has followed its own guidelines recently. It’s time for an independent review. It needs to stop behaving like a 1920s gentlemen’s club and start having proper and transparent complaints procedures.
The society lost an illustrious chairman this year when Philip Pullman resigned after publicly speaking out against attempts to censor Clanchy’s book.
Clanchy also claims that, despite not being a member of the company, Harris contacted her directly, urging her to apologize for her memoir. The poet added that she and Pullman regretted his initial reference to the type of censorship inflicted by the Taliban, in a tweet that ultimately led to his resignation in March.
Despite a call for unity from the Society of Authors over the weekend, the battle over his leadership style looks likely to rage on. Harris was caught up in controversy last week when she appeared, in remarks she later rewrote, to parody online comments by Rowling in support of free speech and anti-free speech Salman Rushdie. knife attack at an event in New York.
On Friday, the SoA tried to turn the page by confessing its attachment to freedom of expression. “We again call on all authors to converse with dignity and respect and to come together to work together on the issues that affect us all,” reads its website. The detailed response also says the company investigated allegations that it failed to support gender-critical members, but found “no basis for complaint.”
But two rival letters have been circulating among members of the society since Harris’ Twitter message about the literary death threats. An early open letter, hosted on writer Julie Bindel’s Substack page, called on Harris to resign because the company had “failed to come to the defense” of threatened authors such as Gillian Philip, Rachel Rooney, Onjali Rauf , Bindel and Clanchy. A rival letter, published by author Melinda Salisbury, defends Harris’s reputation as “a faithful, just, dedicated and passionate president.”
On Thursday, Bindel’s Substack page published a follow-up letter challenging the arguments of Harris defenders and repeating the claim that gender-critical writers don’t get enough support. Harris, he argued, is entitled to his own opinions, but should “separate those opinions from his role in the Society of Authors.”
Novelist Amanda Craig is among the authors deemed to have been rejected by the SoA, according to her critics. Two years ago, Craig was dropped as a judge of the Mslexia writing competition because she signed a letter supporting JK Rowling. Craig wrote to the contest organizers asking that his fees be paid anyway and showed his letter to an SoA official before sending it.
According to those who take issue with the SoA’s handling of free speech issues, Craig received no support from Harris during the incident.
The SoA, however, states: “The allegations against Joanne Harris as President appear to be that she failed to engage with the perpetrators, joined in smear campaigns against them and did not unwilling to represent their interests. This is not a fair representation of the committed and passionate President that the Steering Committee and members see.