It’s time to replace the Society of Authors

The most important job of any union is to support its members against bullies. So why has the Society of Authors, a sort of posh union for writers, illustrators and translators, failed to support members who are receiving death threats? In August, J.K. Rowling tweeted her sympathy for Sir Salman Rushdie after his attempted murder. Imagine how she felt when she received this response: ‘Don’t worry, you are next.’ Rowling is a member of the Society of Authors and expected the union to put pressure on the authorities by condemning the threats against her. Right? Wrong.

Not only did the Society fail to defend Rowling, but the chair of the management committee, Joanne Harris, appeared to mock her. In response, a group of members tried to use last week’s annual general meeting to remove Harris. Unsurprisingly, we were defeated; a climate of fear reigns over much of the publishing industry.

Some authors got in contact after the vote, making clear their support but explaining why they felt they couldn’t speak out. One told me: ‘If I had publicly supported the resolutions, I would be instantly branded a terf and a bigot and might lose my publishing deal.’ Another said she feared being dropped by her agent for the same reason: ‘She is already under the spotlight by trans activists and I can sense her getting nervous. It is difficult enough as an author these days but without an agent I would be finished.’

Perhaps you might think we were being unfair to Harris, author of the bestselling novel Chocolat, who uses the pronouns ‘she/they’. But after Rowling received those death threats, Harris posted a poll on Twitter, writing: ‘Fellow authors… have you ever received a death threat (credible or otherwise)?’ Her poll included the options ‘Yes’, ‘Hell, yes’, ‘No, never’ and ‘Show me, dammit’, suggesting scepticism about how serious the threats were. Following much criticism, Harris apologised for her ‘tone’ and deleted the poll.

Various Society members who had had enough of Harris got together and wrote an open letter, stating that ‘we believe Joanne Harris’s position as chair of the management committee is untenable’. Hundreds of authors added their names, with many more again contacting me privately to explain that they didn’t sign for fear of reprisals.

It all seemed strange given that the Society’s constitution states that its sole aim is ‘to protect the rights and further the interests of authors’. The Society is also committed to ‘protecting free speech’ and opposing ‘in the strongest terms any attempt to stifle or control the author’s voice, whether by censorship, imprisonment, execution, hate speech or trolling’. When Harris was asked why she had not condemned the death threats and abuse directed at Rowling, the Society said it does ‘not get involved in individual debates or in disputes between authors’.

So we decided to try to take control of the Society. We proposed two resolutions. The first was on the duty of management to uphold its stated aim ‘to protect free speech’ and to look at how best to protect the fundamental right of all authors to express themselves freely. Second was the resolution that Harris stand down as chair of the management committee, ‘in light of her documented behaviour and comments, which are not compatible with the Society’s goals of protecting free expression and their policy of dignity and respect’. As soon as the resolutions were made public, supporters of Harris began to tweet slurs about her detractors, calling us transphobes. Harris retweeted a number of these slurs.

Julia Williams, one of the authors of the open letter, spoke in favour of the resolutions at the meeting, describing it as ‘the most bruising and terrifying experience of my career’. Williams, who has worked in publishing for more than 30 years, told me: ‘I have never known such a toxic and bullying culture as exists now. But being agentless and publisherless means I have nothing left to lose. So I did it for those who are so scared for their careers they cannot speak.’

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After our failure to remove Harris, a member of the management committee, Tim Tate, resigned in protest. He said that an investigation into Harris’s conduct had been ‘impeded by attempts to undermine its impartiality and integrity’. All this over a simple statement of support for a terrorised author.

Rowling is far from the only woman to receive death threats because of her views on gender ideology. I have had so many that I’ve stopped counting, and I know of a dozen other feminist authors who have also come in for such abuse. The Society of Authors exists to protect writers like us; it’s why we pay our membership subs. Yet Harris and the Society, indoctrinated as they are by gender ideology, have failed us. It’s time to set up a new writers’ union.

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