Royal Society of Literature looks to rewrite rules to become ‘less elitist’

The Royal Society of Literature (RSL) will change its 200-year-old rules and allow the public to choose its Fellows in a bid to become less “formidably elitist”.

For two centuries the organisation has picked its future Fellows on literary merit judged by an internal caucus of renowned writers.  

However, the learned society which boasts Samuel Talyor Coleridge and TS Eliot among its former members found the time-honoured selection system struggling to reflect modern diversity in a year marked by Black Lives Matter protests.

It has thrown open its doors to writers from overlooked minority ethnic and economic backgrounds by allowing the public to choose who enters the literary body.

Man Booker Prize-winner Dame Hilary Mantel, who is a Fellow of the RSL, said the society has traditionally appeared exclusive and reform will give it the “authority of being representative”.

She told The Telegraph: “We pride ourselves that we are a more equal and diverse country than a generation ago.

“But the world of literature and the arts can still look formidably elitist, and discouraging to those without cash and connections.”

To mark 200 years since its inception and to prevent aspiring writers being “discouraged by lack of examples” Dame Hilary said the RSL will: “Open up to the public the process by which Fellows are recommended and elected.”

Currently new Fellows are elected by current Fellows, and must be a writer who has published two works of literary merit.

Nominations must be seconded by an RSL Fellow, then they are presented to members of the Council of the Royal Society of Literature who vote to elect.

Under new rules, readers and writers from across the UK, as well as RSL Fellows, publishers, agents and arts administrators, are invited to recommend writers for nomination.

They will then be considered by a panel made up of some of the UK’s most renowned writers, including Val McDermid.

The recommendation will be available through an online form on the RSL’s website

Along with the new procedure for inclusion 29 new fellows have been appointed including broadcaster Michael Palin, writers Max Porter and Kate Mosse.

Nine vice-presidents including Poet Laureate Simon Armitage, classicist Mary Beard, Turkish-British writer Elif Shafak, and Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo have also been announced as part of the drive to open up the organisation.

Dame Hilary explained the need for the appointments and reforms: “Not all writers come from cultured or academic backgrounds, or identify with the mainstream.

“Not all writers see other writers every day, or have professional advice and experience to draw on. Some of us are not too strong, and some of us live in unfashionable places.

“Some of us who have been blessed with success never forget what it means to feel we are on the outside looking in.

“I am happy to be able to support and endorse the RSL’s Open Programme to elect … new Fellows, drawing them from groups who are often marginalised in our cultural life.”

It is hoped the changes will help new talent to emerge by showing literary renown is not limited to the privileged, and the current programme under new entry rules will run for at least two years.

The first black woman to win the Booker Prize, Ms Evaristo said: “It’s so important to create new initiatives designed to help make our culture more inclusive for writers from underrepresented communities.”

Dame Marina Warner, President of the RSL said: ‘In the 200th year of the RSL, here and all over the world, literature …  is more crucial than ever.”

The institution, founded by George IV and patronised by the Duchess of Cornwall, will work to elevate the reputations of the writers who become Fellows, and share their talents with the public.

The institution has once before called for new Fellows through a rules change, temporarily altering entry requirements to bring in more writers under the age of 40.

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