Philip Pullman has called for an external review of the Society of Authors (SoA), the UK’s largest trade union for writers, illustrators and translators. Earlier this year he stepped down as president of the organization because he felt he “would not be free to express [his] personal opinion”.
The letter from the His Dark Materials writer, which was leaked to Private Eye magazine, is the latest in a line of controversies to hit the SoA, which began after comments Pullman made about Kate Clanchy’s controversial memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.
Pullman spoke in support of Clanchy and the book, which was criticized for racial and ableist stereotyping. In a now-deleted tweet, made in response to a comment he incorrectly assumed was about Clanchy, Pullman said those who criticized the book without reading it would “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”.
The Society of Authors released a statement at the time distancing itself from Pullman’s comments, and Pullman later tweeted an apology.
But the writer decided to stand down as president, a position he had held for nine years, in March this year, saying that “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”.
In a letter he wrote to the SoA’s council and published by Private Eye this week, Pullman said he resigned because he “felt that the Society did not support me when I was criticized by those who were attacking” Clanchy and her book.
“Instead of looking at the issue calmly, the society (through the management committee and its chair) immediately adopted a position of self-righteous neutrality (as it seemed to me), although more self-righteous than neutral,” the letter continued.
In the letter, Pullman also criticized author Joanne Harris, who is chair of the society’s management committee. Last month two petitions circulated among authors, one in support of Harris and one calling for her resignation. The petitions were made in response to a Twitter poll Harris launched asking about writers’ experiences of receiving death threats. She tweeted the poll in the wake of the attack on Salman Rushdie and following a death threat to JK Rowling, who had expressed solidarity with Rushdie. Those calling for Harris’s resignation say they found the tone of the original tweet – she later rephrased her poll – “flippant”.
In his letter, Pullman said that “facetious and flippant public comments from the chair of the management committee only demonstrate how far the society has come from the serious, valuable and intelligent organization it was when I joined 30-odd years ago”.
He said he feels that the SoA “needs investigation, and investigation from outside at that”.
The trade union has yet to respond publicly to Pullman’s letter, but has previously said that it is “absolutely committed” to condemning any personal attacks made on authors for exercising their rights to freely express themselves.