December 1, 2020
Royal Society of Literature unveils new diversity plan
by Alyea Canada
In more “seriously it’s 2020 how is this just now happening” diversity news, the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) in the UK has announced that the late Andrea Levy will become the first writer of color to have her pen included in RSL’s collection. The announcement was part of a larger unveiling of a new diversity initiative from the RSL.
For those not in the know, the RSL is an eminent society founded in 1820 that appoints fellows deemed to have published works of “outstanding literary merit.” As Alison Flood reports over at the Guardian, the fellows sign their name to the society’s roll book using a “historically influential” UK author’s pen. Current choices are TS Eliot, Byron, George Eliot, and now Levy and Jean Rhys. Levy’s widower confirmed that she would be thrilled at the news, “She kept [her pen] neatly in its box on her work desk and took it out for certain tasks like signing books or writing special letters. As a gift from the world of literature, it had a symbolic importance for her. She always used it with pride and treasured it as a possession.” The RSL also announced poet Dalit Nagra as the new chair. Of the RSL’s diversity initiatives, he was quoted as saying “Excellence is a project which needs updating. We can’t just judge everything by the criteria of George Eliot and TS Eliot.”
In addition, the RSL bestowed their highest honor, “companion of literature,” on six new authors: Anita Desai, Kazuo Ishiguro, Hilary Mantel, Edna O’Brien, Philip Pullman, and Colin Thubron. Only twelve writers can hold the title at once, and the last time they added companions was in 2012. The RSL is launching two new initiatives to encourage diversity among its nearly six hundred fellows, planning to add sixty new fellows from “communities, backgrounds and experiences currently underrepresented in UK literary culture.” This will include writers of color, queer writers, disabled writers, writers outside of London, and writers from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds. The panel selecting these fellows will be chaired by Booker winner, and new vice-president of the RSL, Bernardine Evaristo. (Evaristo also wrote the excellent forward to a report into the lack of diversity in UK publishing which you can read here.) The final prong of the diversity announcement is the RSL International Writers program which will seek writers from outside of the UK to recognize “the power of literature to transcend borders and bring people together.” Part of this is a five-year festival called RSL 200 that looks to the literary landscape of the UK to find uncelebrated and unrecognized voices in history.
This all sounds very impressive, and with the right follow through this could be really good for the RSL and inspiring to the next generation of marginalized writers. However, it should be noted that this is a push for diversity within an already elite institution. There is no doubt that talented writers will be discovered through the mentorship provided by becoming an RSL fellow, but it is also important to diversify all levels of publishing. As Nagra points out authors from marginalized backgrounds often reject themselves before they are rejected by anyone in publishing. When there is one image of a “preeminent author” and it doesn’t look like you, it is hard to imagine a space for yourself. Also helpful to new authors are more faces that look like yours within the industry itself. I know I say this a lot, but it can’t be said enough, the industry needs to work on diversity throughout and not just in terms of authors. That being said, I have high hopes for the steps taken by the RSL and hopefully other “eminent” organizations follow their example in being open to change.
Alyea Canada is an editor at Melville House.