Society of Authors responds to calls for Joanne Harris to step down as committee chair | Books

The UK’s largest trade union for writers, illustrators and translators has defended its position on free speech, in light of calls for Joanne Harris to step down as the chair of its management committee.

This comes after the Chocolat author was criticised for launching a Twitter poll in the wake of the attack on Salman Rushdie and following a death threat to JK Rowling, who had expressed solidarity with Rushdie.

In the tweet, Harris, who said she was “shaken” by the attack, asked authors if they had ever received a death threat. The available answers were “Yes”, “Hell, yes”, “No, never” and “Show me, dammit”. Harris later deleted the poll and re-posted it with different answers. Two open letters – one calling for Harris’s resignation and one in support of her – are currently being circulated.

The Society of Authors (SoA) said in a statement published on Wednesday that it is “absolutely committed” to condemning any personal attacks made on authors for exercising their rights to freely express themselves. “What we have seen time and again over the past few years is that polarised viewpoints have become the norm, and that so many exchanges on complex issues are happening in online forums where nuance and meaning are lost,” the union added.

An open letter written by Julie Bindel and signed by more than 100 other writers and industry professionals asserted their “wish to express our deep disquiet and anger at the Society of Authors’ abject failure to speak out on violent threats towards its members”, and went on to say “we believe Joanne Harris’s position as Chair of the Management Committee is untenable”.

Bindel’s letter accused Harris of appearing “to make light of the subject by treating it in a flippant way”, and making “a sideswipe at JK Rowling, who had earlier that day received two more public death threats after tweeting her horror at what had happened to Sir Salman”. The letter also said the SoA and Harris have “been captured by gender ideologues who brook no debate and who are not prepared to support authors who fall foul of online bullies”.

Hundreds of writers and industry professionals have signed a separate open letter, written by author Melinda Salisbury, in support of Harris. The signatories of this letter said she had “been a stalwart, fair, dedicated, and passionate chair”, and that they were “concerned by the seemingly coordinated attacks against her by a small, but vocal, minority, who have become known to many of us who use Twitter as persons who regularly use their own platforms to intimidate and bully those who do not agree with their ideologies regarding trans and non-binary people”.

Harris has since said in a tweet that she believes this criticism of her has nothing to do with the SoA and “everything to do with [her] support of the trans community”. She added: “I continue to support the trans community, as well as standing up for free speech for everyone. There’s no conflict.”

The novelist has been the chair of the SoA’s management committee since January 2020, and was re-elected in March this year to serve a second two-year term. The management committee is a member-elected board that meets six times a year to “govern the direction of the SoA”, according to the union’s website. Twelve elected members, along with the chairs of professional groups such as the Translators Association, are responsible for “setting the strategy and policies of the organisation”.

The SoA defended its stance on freedom of speech last year, after Kate Clanchy’s book Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me was criticised for racial and ableist stereotyping.

Among those who defended Clanchy was author Philip Pullman, the former president of the SoA, who, in response to a tweet that he incorrectly assumed was about Clanchy, said that those who criticised the book without reading it would “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”. The SoA distanced itself from Pullman’s comments and he later apologised, before resigning as president of the organisation earlier this year because he felt he “would not be free to express [his] personal opinion” as long as he remained in the role.

Harris, however, has no plans to resign. In another tweet about the open letters, she said: “My term of office as Chair ends in 2024. I won’t be leaving before that.”



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