Leaving the Chair…

My time as Chair of the Society of Authors comes to an end on January 18th.

It has been an honour serving as Chair, and I’m very proud of the progress the organization has made in terms of greater diversity, accessibility and inclusion; the online events; the new prizes; the millions raised and given out by the Contingency Fund to authors in need; and the steady increase in our numbers. I take no individual credit for these things; the Chair is only one member of the Management Committee, and doesn’t have the power to make unilateral decisions, but I have worked hard alongside my colleagues on the Management Committee and the SOA staff to increase our visibility, to raise awareness of what we do, to encourage younger and diverse members to join, and to combat the traditional Londoncentricity of the organization. It hasn’t always been easy. Progress never is. I’ve been the subject of a relentless smear campaign from a handful of individuals who over the past 4 years have tried to silence, intimidate, discredit and even remove me, both for holding different political views to their own, and for refusing to pledge allegiance to a cause that has nothing to do with the work of a writers’ union.

Over 4 years (which includes the time I spent dealing with breast cancer), I have received death threats, threats to my career, abuse to me and to my son, defamatory comments about me on social media and in the Press. I have seen people who were my colleagues and friends believe – and repeat – outright lies about me without once questioning whether the accusations were true. I have lost work, I have been quietly dropped by a number of literary festivals, and my agent and publisher have received demands to terminate my contract. Prominent gender critical influencers – many of whom have nothing to do with the SOA – have weighed in publicly and aggressively about my role as Chair, without any knowledge of the facts. Some have spoken of burning my books, and at least one person, who works in a charity bookshop, boasted of destroying my donated books to stop them reaching the shelves. The SOA has received multiple complaints about me from the same handful of individuals, none of which I have named so far out of respect for the confidentiality of the procedure. These complaints were fully investigated, and found to be without merit. To satisfy the complainant who questioned the fairness of complaints procedure, the process itself was first scrutinized by an independent legal team, and found to be fair and robust. However, a number of  people continue to spread the same misinformation about me. I haven’t named anyone so far, or said much about their activity, and I have tried to avoid responding to provocation. This was partly to protect the SoA, and also because in my role as Chair, it wouldn’t have been appropriate to comment on any of this in public.

However, once I step down, I won’t have any such constraints. I’ll be free to call out harassment – although honestly, I have better things to do than to give these people any further attention. I’m looking forward to having time to myself – to travel, to write, to live my best life – in the knowledge that, to my enemies, there’s nothing worse than being ignored.

But finally, before I leave, I’d like to debunk a few claims about the SOA itself, which have been made over the past few years. One is that the SOA has discriminated against Gender Critical writers, or has refused to help them because of their views. This is quite untrue. Any member asking for help is treated in exactly the same way, regardless of their views. However, the SOA itself does not intervene in social media disputes, nor does it endorse the personal or political opinions of individual members. That goes for all members, including its officials: when I was receiving death threats from the GC lobby for my support of trans rights, the SOA did not comment or offer public support, nor would I have expected it to.

The second, even more idiotic, claim is that the SOA has become a private club which excludes GC members from the organization. Nothing could be further from the truth: in fact, the SOA is far more inclusive now than it was when I first joined. As a union, the SOA is open to anyone who meets the membership criteria. All members have the same rights and the same access to services.

The third ridiculous claim is that the SOA doesn’t support free speech. Of course it does: however, a handful of people have taken this to mean that their opinions should be protected from criticism. That isn’t what free speech means. Free speech includes freedom to reply, to criticize and to challenge, within the law. That means the people whose views you find offensive as well as the ones you agree with. And where the law has been broken, in the case of hate speech or death threats, you should take your complaint to the police, not to your trade union.

At the 2022 AGM, ten people put forward a resolution to remove me as Chair. This resolution was overwhelmingly defeated by the membership. At the time I encouraged those calling for my removal to stand for the Management Committee instead of attacking its elected officials: a democracy works best by giving space to a variety of different voices. For that reason I’m glad to see at least one of those voices on the Management Committee this year. I hope that they will soon come to understand that their views on gender are as irrelevant to the policies and operations of the SOA as mine were. I hope they will have the opportunity to learn more about the organization that they have been elected to serve, and that they will take as much of an interest in the work of the SOA in promoting diversity, inclusivity, fair contracts, literary prizes, copyright, author remuneration, the ethical use of AI, sustainability, festivals, etc. as they have in the GC cause. Most of all I hope that they will be capable of representing the interests of all SOA members, whether they agree with them or not. It’s not always easy, or comfortable. But that’s the job. For seven years, I did it as well as I could. Time for someone else to try.

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has supported me during my time in office. I know that some of you fear a return to less inclusive ways when I’m gone. But Committee members come and go. No single member – not the Chair, nor anyone else – determines policy. Decisions are made by the full Committee, and never by just one person. And the heart of the SOA is its staff, and the SOA staff are terrific, progressive and forward-thinking. The contracts team is amazing; the finance team knowledgeable and experienced; and whoever gets to replace me, you’ll be in safe hands. I promise.

And I’ll still be around, of course, taking part in SOA activities. I still care passionately about authors’ rights, fair contracts, festivals and all the things I’ve been trying to raise awareness of over the past seven years. I still believe passionately in the SOA as a union; in its capacity to adapt to this challenging publishing landscape; in the important work it continues to do for authors and illustrators of all kinds.

See you on the other side.