by Kate Clanchy
Tuesday, 15
November 2022
Debate
16:15

Why Joanne Harris must go

The Society of Authors Chair has no interest in upholding freedom of speech
by Kate Clanchy
Joanne Harris. Credit: Getty.

This Thursday will see an unprecedentedly large Annual General Meeting of the Society of Authors, after a year which has seen the organisation embroiled in an internal conflict over freedom of speech. More than 500 members, many clutching proxy votes for friends, will gather on Zoom. The first five resolutions to be discussed at the meeting, concerning the taking of minutes and the review of accounts, are unlikely to attract much attention. The real draw for the audience is the two motions that follow.

Resolution 6 asks Chair of the Society’s Management Committee, Joanne Harris, to step down from her position “in light of her documented behaviour and comments”. For the uninitiated, in August Harris tweeted out a poll which took a flippant approach to authors receiving death threats. Shared soon after the attack on Salman Rushdie, it was no coincidence that Harris tastelessly referred to the threats “(credible or otherwise)” following a similar accusation that was sent to JK Rowling after she tweeted support for Rushdie. The Chair, you see, has some pretty profound disagreements with Rowling about gender ideology, and has several times made pointed barbs about the Harry Potter author.


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Hundreds of members of the Society have made their feelings clear that Harris’s outspoken stance creates a chilling effect for free speech. This brings us to Resolution 7, which asks that the Society “urgently reviews how to pursue its stated aim ‘to protect free speech’ and puts in place a robust framework to […] protect the fundamental right of all authors to express themselves freely within the law”. 

This second resolution should be entirely reasonable, yet Harris yesterday retweeted a supporter who suggested that it has been “proposed by a fringe minority of bad actors”. In a personal blog post, she made this “fringe minority” out to be even more sinister, saying that the “targeting of the SOA is part of a wider attempt to force the organization to abandon its impartiality and to pander to the demands of the right wing, via the gender critical movement”. 

The Society faces fresh challenges to upholding of free expression and, of course, not all of them directly stem from its beleaguered Chair. Last week the Scottish Book Trust’s new code of conduct, which looks suspiciously like a morality clause, attracted criticism from the British press. The chance to discuss that and other issues of free speech at the AGM and throughout the year ought to be available to the SOA. Under current leadership, however, it isn’t.

The Society of Authors is 138 years old and today represents 12,000 writers. Among those are some of the UK’s most thoughtful and open-minded public figures. If they cannot weigh up Resolution 7 and discuss its implications sensibly then something immense has been lost. 

The SOA is a genuinely essential union. It has presided over a steady expansion of authors’ rights in contract law and publishing tort; in the 1950s it helped to ensure that a rising tide of McCarthyism did not take hold in the British book world. It still has a purpose. If, like me, you are a member and want this venerable institution to keep sight of its principles, you can vote here until the end of the day.

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FacRecte NilTime
FacRecte NilTime
22 days ago

I’m not a member of the SoA but wish you every success. The freedom of expression issues engaged here are so clear cut and matter so much. It’s stunning – and an indication of how warped discourse has become, and how fragile our institutions – that this ball is even in play. Good luck tomorrow.

Brian Villanueva
Brian Villanueva
22 days ago

Yet another case that progressives destroy everything they touch. 150 year old institution destroyed in just a few years because a handful of ideologues can’t see past the end of their own noses.

Tim Hayward
Tim Hayward
22 days ago

Please stop using the word ‘progressive’ in this context. What is happening is retrograde!

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
22 days ago

I sympathise with Joanne Harris’s position, in that her own child identifies as trans. It can’t be easy. However, she has allowed this to make her a mouthpiece for hard-line gender identity ideology. That adopting such a position is fundamentally incompatible with her role within the Society of Authors as Chair of the Society’s Management Committee is amply demonstrated by her recent behaviour. She cannot do both, and therefore must go.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
22 days ago

The Great Plague of post-modern narcissism destroys yet another fine institution.

Andrew Dalton
Andrew Dalton
22 days ago

“targeting of the SOA is part of a wider attempt to force the organization [sic] to abandon its impartiality and to pander to the demands of the right wing, via the gender critical movement”.

Does this mean that pandering to the demands of the left wing is okay, since the SoA chooses not to criticise those views?
Additionally, does this imply that the right wing is inherently wrong, or even evil. Is it the official position of the SoA to oppose the right?
I say this as someone who transcends the left/right paradigm. Clinging onto a particular wing of the political spectrum is not a nuanced position.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
22 days ago

Unfortunately, the SoA is not the only institution in Civic UK that has been hijacked by the wokerati. As is usual with zealots, they have convinced themselves that the enforcement of their ideology trumps all other considerations. The only answer is defenestration.

Last edited 22 days ago by Peter Francis
Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
22 days ago

The revolting women who have taken hold of the literary world – from the upper reaches of publishing down to the eight-member book club – have ruined the entire enterprise. I thank God my own extensive personal library is stuffed with books published before this terrible calamity. Funny, but the majority of authors I read and re-read are men.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
22 days ago

What baffles me is how people like Joanne Harris get appointed in the first place.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
22 days ago

From Joanne Harris’s blog; “We do not debate “what makes a woman” because the SOA has 12,000 members, including trans people and gender critical people, and we want to serve them all. The gender critical lobby has – or so it seems to me – consistently refused to understand this.
I was trying to understand what lies beneath the disagreement with Harris’s views and so went to her blog referenced in the article.
It seems to me Harris’s view is that the claims made by trans people – statements or positions about external and internal states – must be protected from an external skepticism grounded in statements of fact, and must serve as a gateway for what can and cannot be expressed.
Serve them all is therefore a euphemism for squaring the circle – protecting the self perceptions of trans people by limiting certain speech that describes a reality contradicting their claims.
Her blog also relies heavily on casting the claims of those who point out empirical facts of biological reality, as beliefs, in order to portray the disagreement as one of contesting beliefs.
There is also the problem of the term critical in her blog, such as in gender critical beliefs, critical movement, gender critical lobby and gender critical voices. Harris links this term with all this has become part of a right-wing culture wars agenda …
and in doing so, appears to be misunderstanding the meaning of the term critical in these phrases. Harris’s usage suggests she is interpreting critical as expressing adverse or disapproving comments or judgements[google], whereas the correct meaning is expressing or involving an analysis of the merits and faults of a work[google].

Smalltime J
Smalltime J
21 days ago

Couldn’t disagree more. The idea that a writer should be fired from a writers’ committee for ‘talking flippantly’ about an issue is outrageous and a real chilling blow for free speech. So is ousting them because they have political beliefs you don’t agree with. Absolutely disgusting behaviour, and I would say the same if a “gender critical” person were being ousted from such a role because of their beliefs.

Smalltime J
Smalltime J
21 days ago
Reply to  Smalltime J

Also, having followed the link (to the Daily Mail of all places, I agree with another commenter that it is telling that this is the newspaper that is running attacks on the SOA) it turns out that it is simply untrue that Joanne Harris referred to death threats against JKR as “credible or otherwise”. In fact, she tweeted a poll asking authors to respond by voting on whether *THEY* had ever received any death threats, “credible or otherwise”. The “credible or otherwise” bit was obviously to define the terms of the poll, ie to make clear that it was asking whether authors had received anything that was in substance a death threat, even if they didn’t take it seriously. I guess there’s an argument that addressing this subject by twitter poll is flippant but again the idea that an author should be removed from an author’s association for *flippancy* is just such an ironic, censorious and anti-free-speech approach.

dan baldwin
dan baldwin
20 days ago

Congratulations Joanne for winning the vote with 81%. Bigots must be defeated wherever we find them.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
19 days ago
Reply to  dan baldwin

What do you mean by bigots?

Joff Brown
Joff Brown
22 days ago

Why has someone (presumably a sub) placed a [sic] after ‘organization’? It’s not incorrect. It’s a perfectly acceptable way to spell the word in British English as well as American and was, till relatively recently, the usual way of spelling it.

Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Nora Barnacle (she/her)
20 days ago

Has anyone heard the results of voting? What happened? Do tell? I mean, I know already, but I’d like to hear you say it.

Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Nora Barnacle (she/her)
20 days ago

I did notice Ms Clanchy responding to one Resolution when we were still talking about the one before. I’m not sure if she was being too keen or if she wasn’t paying attention.

Nora Barnacle
Nora Barnacle
22 days ago

It speaks volumes that the key pieces of ‘evidence’ that Ms Clanchy references are celebrity clickbait articles from the Mail Online. Is it really the most reliable source for demonstrating failures in organisational leadership? Or is it perhaps better suited to providing fuel for character assassination on petty ideological grounds?
The SoA’s board has published responses to the resolutions Ms Clanchy mentions so I am surprised that Ms Clanchy has failed to reference them. They are freely available for download from the AGM page. It is of course possible that I am incapable of appreciating the deeper qualities of Mail Online ‘writing’, but I do feel the SoA board’s documents contain none of the puffed up silliness evident throughout Ms Clanchy’s article.

Last edited 22 days ago by Nora Barnacle
john boulter
john boulter
22 days ago



Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
21 days ago

Has any truly great writer ever been a member of the Society of Authors (I don’t keep up with such things)? Strikes me that it could disappear tomorrow and the world would go on unmoved.
I’m guessing the org. was founded originally (on the assumed ‘principle’ that individual so-called ‘rights’ need to be fought for by dedicated pressure groups) as a copyright protection and royalty-swilling venture. Somewhere, for the bien pensant middle-class, it’s always about money in the end.
My problem is that I can’t think why any two or more truly independent ‘authors’ would need to form a ‘society’. Fiction writing is for me the most personal of activities. I don’t see that the existence of collegiate organizations would affect the quality of such work in any way whatever.
‘Societies’ generally once were the preserve of the ‘sciences’ in the larger sense. That enabled the widespread distribution of ‘facts’ and ‘theories’ generally within a discipline (‘authorship’ not being paramount, rather ‘recognized qualifications’). But fiction writing is not that kind of activity. Any writing organisation devoted to fiction, bereft of foundational principles that are universally agreed upon. can become nothing else but solely political.
I’ve just read Harris’s bio on Wikipedia. Partly French? Well I never.. (whenever ‘France’ is, ideology can never be too far away, cf. Orwell, Chesterton both with culturally French mothers). And then there’s the problem which appears to be that she seems to regard the writing of fiction as a ‘political’ or ‘moral’ act (viz: a means of ‘righting (quotidian) wrongs’). Nothing could be more remote from the truth. No real ‘artist’ (of any kind) has ever believed in that sort of thing.

Smalltime J
Smalltime J
21 days ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

I think the point of the society is to help authors with contracts and rights negotiations etc not with the actual writing bit. It’s a trade association/union type organisation.

Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Nora Barnacle (she/her)
22 days ago

It speaks volumes that the key ‘evidence’ Ms Clanchy offers here is in links to celebrity clickbait articles on Mail Online. Is that really the most trustworthy platform for demonstrating failures in organisational leadership? Or is it perhaps better suited to targeted character assassinations based on ideological grounds, which is what appears to me to be happening here.
The SoA’s board of directors have published clear responses to the resolutions Ms Clanchy references. They are freely available from the AGM booking page so I am surprised she has chosen not to mention them here. Perhaps I have missed some crucial substance and philosophical value in the Mail Online ‘writing’ but the information from the SoA board seems to me to be more trustworthy than both Mail Online and Ms Clanchy’s words above.

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
22 days ago

It speaks even larger volumes that you have pronouns in your handle. It’s like reading a criticism of atheism signed by a bishop.

Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Nora Barnacle (she/her)
22 days ago
Reply to  Huw Parker

Thank you, Huw, helping to demonstrate that this is about ideological divides, not suitability for leadership. Did you read the SoA board’s responses to the resolutions? That seems more relevant here than whether I state my pronouns or the experiences of Joanne’s son. What did you think?

Huw Parker
Huw Parker
22 days ago

I did. What did I think? Smoke and mirrors, for the most part. In respect of Resolution 6 (Harris’s fitness for leadership), their response appears to amount to (1) you didn’t attach the specific evidence of her wrongdoing, and (2) it is for the membership to decide. (1) is easily found, as Harris carries her opposition to gender critical feminism like a flag of war. (2) is of course quite true, and hurrah for that.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
22 days ago
Reply to  Huw Parker

My pronouns, which I include on all my emails, are ‘His/Your Serene Excellency.’ I do this specifically to annoy plonkers like Nora Barnacle. I also post only under my true and lawful name.

Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Nora Barnacle (she/her)
22 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

It takes a little more than that to annoy plonkers like me, Malcolm.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
22 days ago

Well you’ve certainly annoyed, or at least irritated me, Nora with your ostentatious parade of pronouns – a ridiculous affectation which shows you are a creature of fashion. Who are you trying to help? All those people who thought Nora was a man’s name?

Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Nora Barnacle (she/her)
21 days ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

And thank you for demonstrating how little it takes, Malcolm, to annoy plonkers like you. Watch your blood pressure, sweetie.

Last edited 21 days ago by Nora Barnacle (she/her)
Huw Parker
Huw Parker
22 days ago

Incidentally, regardless of one’s views regarding The Mail Online, isn’t this – targeted character assassinations based on ideological grounds’ – a perfect description of what Harris is attempting to do to JK Rowling?