Photo by Roberto Ricciuti

On the chopping block

Philip Pullman’s early resignation signals a setback for free speech in publishing

Artillery Row

Perhaps appropriately, given its literary antecedents, the august writers’ institution the Society of Authors has found itself plunged into a maelstrom that resembles something from the works of Anthony Trollope. In one corner is the Society’s former President Sir Philip Pullman, the distinguished author of the His Dark Materials books. In the other is the Society’s management committee, led by its chair, the no less distinguished Joanne Harris. And caught between the two of them is its membership past and present, not least the increasingly hapless figure of the teacher and writer Kate Clanchy, who has inadvertently triggered one of the ugliest, most divisive spats that the literary world has seen in decades.

Pullman has this week announced his resignation as President of the Society of Authors, a year before he was due to depart, in circumstances that can only be described as unpleasant. Last summer, Clanchy was accused of using “ableist” and racist terms in her Orwell Prize-winning memoir Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. Her graceless and factually inaccurate response, in which she denied using language that was indeed to be found in the book, did her little credit, but then neither did the hysterical response of her critics, who all but demanded that she be lynched for her transgressions.

Pullman was prevailed upon to delete his tweet and apologise for any offence

The saga dragged on for months. Pullman initially came in on the side of Clanchy when he tweeted that her detractors “would find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”. He caused outrage, both for the bluntness of his words and for the fashion in which, in his honorary role as President of the Society of Authors, he was appearing to criticise some of its members in the matter. Pullman was prevailed upon to delete his tweet and to apologise for any offence caused. The Society, fearing a potentially existential crisis, sent out an extraordinary email in which it stated, “Philip wrote his comments as an individual, not in the name of the Society of Authors…[the title of] president is an honorary position only: he does not play any part in the governance of the SoA.” Harris herself stated that “not only do we deplore racism and prejudice in all its forms but all our policies are active directives — they exist to make a real difference for people”.

If it was hoped that this would put an end to the matter, it did not. Clanchy was dropped by her publisher Pan Macmillan, snapped up by the enterprising independent Swift and promptly embarked upon what one wag (me) called the “Greta Garbo cancellation tour”, giving interviews to predominantly right-leaning titles in which she railed against the unfortunate ways in which she had been frustrated from giving her side of the story. Her critics continued to grouse and stew — look up the words “Kate Clanchy” on Twitter, and you’ll find opprobrium that would make the uninformed believe that she had murdered or raped the schoolchildren in her care, rather than merely writing a carelessly phrased book about them — and the Society of Authors continued to occupy an uneasy position, caught between the Scylla of social media opinion and the Charybdis of continuing to offend some of the country’s highest-profile writers.

Finally, the dam has broken. Pullman’s resignation letter did not attempt to suggest that he was leaving voluntarily, and stated that, while his time as President had been a “privilege”, his position was no longer tenable. He wrote to the Society’s management committee:

“Recent events have made it apparent that when a difference of opinion arises, there is no easy way to resolve it within the constitution or the established practices of the society. When it became clear that statements of mine were being regarded as if they represented the views of the society as a whole (although they did nothing of the sort, and weren’t intended to), and that I was being pressed by people both in and out of the society to retract them and apologise, I realised that I would not be free to express my personal opinions as long as I remained president. That being the case, with great regret and after long consideration I chose to stand down.”

They represent a tradition of free thought in publishing that deserves to exist

Harris blandly thanked Pullman in terms that suggested she would not be sad to see his departure (We are very sorry to see Philip resign. We thank Philip for his many years of service to the SoA, for his inspirational work with young readers) but the Society’s chief executive Nicola Solomon was more effusive, praising him for his efforts speaking out about issues that make a practical difference to author’s everyday lives, such as payment for speaking at literary festivals and internet-driven book piracy, which he evocatively called “moral squalor… It is theft, as surely as reaching into someone’s pocket and taking their wallet is theft”.

Yet Pullman has now found himself mired in a decidedly different kind of moral squalor. It remains to be seen what will happen to the Society now that its high-profile figurehead has so openly removed himself from the organisation. Already, two grand dames of publishing, Marina Warner and Carmen Callil, have publicly resigned from the Society, denouncing it as they did so. Warner has called its actions “a revival of the old pillory…what is happening now is creating an atmosphere of repression and anxiety”. Callil has stated, “Publishers and agents should not behave as they have been towards Kate Clanchy and Philip Pullman. They should be the servants of writers. You don’t just ban people…what is happening now is censorship and it must be fought.”

Although writers come from every conceivable political sphere, there is no doubt that publishing in both Britain and America is a predominantly left-leaning and almost comically socially conscious profession. It is increasingly difficult for those who stand against the tide to remain part of the new establishment. Although Sir Philip, a long-standing man of the Left, is no more a right-wing firebrand that Ms Clanchy is, they represent a tradition of free speech and free thought in publishing and literary life which, wrong-headed and even plain wrong though it might sometimes be, deserves to exist and deserves to be allowed its place at the table.

Pullman’s resignation from the Society of Authors is therefore a regrettable indication that an organisation that has done a great deal of good in its calls for diversity, has nevertheless not managed to represent that most crucial of things — a diversity of opinion.

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