July 4, 2024 - 7:00am

For over 200 years, the point of the Royal Society of Literature has been to “reward literary merit and excite literary talent”. To stand up for literature against those who want to suppress it. In recent years, the organisation has failed in this duty too many times.

It failed when it relaxed its requirements that fellows should have published two outstanding works of literature before admission. It failed when it refused to support the author and teacher Kate Clanchy after she was denounced as a racist by a social media mob. Most shockingly, it failed when it didn’t unequivocally back Salman Rushdie after he was nearly murdered in August 2022.

It is no surprise that past presidents of the RSL, from Colin Thubron to Marina Warner, have now written a letter to the organisation’s council of trustees in which they complain about a culture of censorship and an autocratic takeover.

The problems afflicting the RSL come from a desire for “inclusivity”. Too many prominent authors in our society, it is claimed, come from privileged backgrounds: they are white, male and old. We need to be more open to writers from a “marginalised” background; we need to speak to readers who come from those same backgrounds. Literature should be for everyone: the job of the RSL is to make this a reality.

But the idea that the RSL is historically hostile to non-white authors is silly. As the novelist Philip Hensher has pointed out, V.S. Naipaul was admitted as a fellow in 1962 when the Trinidad-born writer was 30. And literature should be potentially open to everyone, but this does not mean we should sacrifice literary merit in favour of inclusivity.

Naipaul was admitted because he was a gifted writer, not because he came from a Caribbean background, and that is how it should be — it is condescending to judge non-white authors by their race rather than the inherent quality of their work.

Another problem with desperately trying to be “inclusive” is that it undermines your capacity to stand up for freedom of expression. When a mob goes after a writer for the alleged crime of bigotry, or a madman tries to murder an author for supposedly offending a religion, the point of the RSL should be to stand up for the authors in question. No ifs, no buts. It needs to exclude, not include, those who think authors are fair game for bullying and violence.

For an organisation like the RSL, inclusivity should never come at the expense of literature. The fact it does is symptomatic of a wider problem in Western societies: institutions failing to defend the values they claim to profess and instead succumbing to vicious mob-rule.

Tomiwa Owolade is a freelance writer and the author of This is Not America, which is out in paperback in May.