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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Ella Creamer

Royal Society of Literature aims to broaden representation as it announces 62 new fellows

Joseph Coelho, Emma Dabiri, Patrick Ness.
Joseph Coelho, Emma Dabiri, Patrick Ness. Composite: Suki Dhanda/Silvana Trevale/Murdo Macleod

Broadcaster and writer Emma Dabiri, young adult author Patrick Ness, Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik and poet Anthony Anaxagorou are among the fellows newly elected to the Royal Society of Literature (RSL).

The RSL, a UK charity aimed at advancing literature, announced its 62 new fellows during a ceremony at the Garden Museum in London on Wednesday.

Half of the fellows were elected through the second year of the RSL’s Open initiative, which aims to recognise writers from backgrounds currently underrepresented in UK literary culture.

The latest cohort includes a “broad range” of writers from “different parts of the UK, from different communities, different demographics,” said Bernardine Evaristo, the Booker prize-winning president of the RSL.

Historically, fellows were drawn from “a much narrower field,” Evaristo added. Many writers on the council were from London, for example, and “not really having their antennae out there in other parts of the country”. The organisation “needed to change” and become one that is “for all writers, rather than traditionally writers who are white and middle class”.

Bernardine Evaristo.
The RSL is ‘very forward-looking, very progressive’ … president Bernardine Evaristo. Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Guardian

Open fellows were nominated by readers and writers before being considered by a judging panel consisting of acclaimed UK authors including Monica Ali, Chibundu Onuzo and Damian Barr. Among those selected are Anaxagorou, children’s author Joseph Coelho and novelists Laline Paull and Tade Thompson.

Paull, whose debut novel The Bees was nominated for the Women’s prize for fiction, described the fellowship as a “massive” honour. “It means that I can be bolder, be braver and feel that I’ve got a bit of solid ground under my creative practice,” she said, adding that the Open initiative “is a sign of a better world and a more interesting and fertile creative establishment”.

The Open initiative was established as a two-year programme as part of the RSL’s bicentennial celebrations in 2020 to induct 60 new writers into the society. “To improve inclusivity, one has to actively seek it. That’s just how it is,” said Thompson, whose novels include Rosewater and The Murders of Molly Southbourne.

Anaxagorou, who won the 2023 Ondaatje prize for Heritage Aesthetics, a collection shaped by his family’s migratory history between the UK and Cyprus, said that there are few Cypriots “visibly working within literature” and that the Cypriot diaspora is “not a community that focuses a lot on arts and culture”. He hopes his election as an RSL fellow will give Cypriot writers “some motivation that they belong here as well”.

The Open initiative improves the “literary gene pool of the United Kingdom” because a lack of variety “causes weakness”, added Thompson. “A culturally rich and a culturally diverse corpus in literature, in writing, in any kind of art at all can only be a good thing.”

Alongside the Open fellows, 15 writers were elected by the regular process, which involves being nominated by two existing fellows for a body of writing including at least two works of “outstanding literary merit”. These writers include Guardian columnist Malik, author and former Times editor Peter Stothard and food writer Bee Wilson.

All new fellows signed their names in the RSL Roll Book using a pen of a famous writer from the charity’s collection, including those of Andrea Levy, Jean Rhys, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, TS Eliot and Lord Byron.

Sixteen new honorary fellows – including individuals who have made a significant contribution to literature as publishers, agents, booksellers or producers – were also announced. These include James Currey, a longtime publisher of African studies literature, and Emma Paterson, an agent who represents Evaristo.

In her speech at the London ceremony, Evaristo urged attendees to “understand” how the “polymathic” artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT – a chatbot that provides humanlike responses to questions and commands by drawing on internet data – will have an impact on “our precious literature culture”. She said that the tool is in one sense a “parasitic, plagiaristic, rapacious super-brain”, but that on the other hand it could prove to be “an incredibly useful tool that improves our lives”.

Evaristo described some commands she had fed ChatGPT, including coming up with a sequel to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, writing a love poem and penning a short story in the style of Evaristo herself, the result of which she called “awful and a little embarrassing”. The author said that though the technology is “nascent”, its “potential to improve is exponential”, adding that a worst case scenario would be that “we stop thinking for ourselves and slowly become self-lobotomised”.

The society also announced changes to the fellowship election process from next year onwards, which Evaristo described as a “radical move”. Drawing on the Open initiative – which ends this year – readers and writers across the UK will be invited to put forward names of fellows and honorary fellows alongside suggestions from the existing fellowship.

“Previously, only fellows could nominate other writers and people in literature for the fellowship,” explained Evaristo. The final list of fellows will be chosen by a panel of writers, which will change each year. The inaugural panel will be helmed by RSL chair Daljit Nagra.

Given its 200-year history, people may assume that the RSL is an “old-fashioned institution and isn’t very progressive,” said Evaristo, but it is in fact “very forward-looking, very progressive and committed to inclusion at every level”.


This year’s new fellows in full

The 15 new fellows
Karin Altenberg
Tash Aw
Josh Cohen
Gavin Francis
James Hamilton-Paterson
Michael Hofmann
Maya Jaggi
Toby Litt
Nesrine Malik
Beverley Naidoo
Suniti Namjoshi
Owen Sheers
Peter Stothard
Erica Wagner
Bee Wilson

The 31 new Open fellows
Leila Aboulela
Moniza Alvi
Anthony Anaxagorou
Romalyn Ante
Carys Bray
Rowan Hisayo Buchanan
Jan Carson
Joseph Coelho
Patricia Cumper
Emma Dabiri
Tishani Doshi
Wendy Erskine
Jenni Fagan
Janice Galloway
Rosie Garland
Seán Hewitt
Anthony Joseph
Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Patrice Lawrence
Roy McFarlane
Darren McGarvey
Kiran Millwood Hargrave
Benjamin Myers
Patrick Ness
Kaite O’Reilly
Glenn Patterson
Laline Paull
Leone Ross
Sunny Singh
Preti Taneja
Tade Thompson

The 16 new honorary fellows
Nelle Andrew
Mohit Bakaya
Richard Beswick
James Currey
Georgina Godwin
Chris Gribble
Mark C Hewitt
Peggy Hughes
Andrew Kidd
Robyn Marsack
Henderson Mullin
Emma Paterson
Sue Roberts
Aki Schilz
Bill Swainson
Sylvia Whitman

• This article was amended on 12 July. An earlier version misspelt Bernardine Evaristo’s name in the standfirst.

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