Forty Under Forty
As the RSL prepares to elect a band of younger Fellows, nine writers made Fellows in their twenties and thirties remember what it meant to them.
As a special initiative for 2018, the Society’s governing Council has decided to elect 40 writers aged under 40 to become Fellows of the RSL. For the first time in our history, the RSL has asked publishers, literary agents, literature organisations and theatre directors to recommend the best young writers for nomination.
RSL Fellowship is a unique lifetime literary honour, which also confers the right to contribute to the governance of the Society. Fellows must be writers of at least two works of outstanding literary merit or the equivalent in any literary genre. They must be nominated by two existing Fellows, and be elected at a secret ballot of our Vice-Presidents and Council. Every new Fellow is then invited to sign the RSL’s historic roll book, using either Byron’s pen or T.S. Eliot’s pen.
Our 523 current Fellows encompass the most distinguished authors writing in the uk today. The average age is 70. Only three are aged under 40; none is aged under 30.
With the 40 Under 40 initiative, the RSL aims to welcome a new generation of writers into the RSL, and to celebrate the talent and diversity of Britain’s younger writers. In future, we may develop similar initiatives for other groups of writers under-represented in our Fellowship.
The 40 Under 40s will be in addition to the usual annual election of new Fellows of all ages – which in 2018 will be for 30 writers.
Recommendations of writers for 40 Under 40 will be assessed by a specially convened panel of our Fellows, chaired by novelist Kamila Shamsie. The panel will make the 40 nominations to the Council and Vice-Presidents for election. The results will be announced in late spring 2018.
I was astonished and delighted to have been chosen to be a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature while I was in my early thirties. My biography of Lytton Strachey had been published towards the end of the 1960s – a perfect time which coincided with an end to the law against homosexuality in Britain. I was glad to see it go and liked to think that my book may have added to that. But I was not, as many readers thought, homosexual myself. I write my biographies to explore the lives of people very different from myself. That is my object and, never having gone to university, part of my education.
A strange and glorious memory of my first visit to the RSL as a newly elected Fellow, long ago one summer evening at the old Hyde Park Gardens address, shortly after I had published Shelley the Pursuit, feeling very nervous (surely some mistake?) and approaching the grand white stucco portico, going up the serious stone steps (should a Romantic biographer be wearing a tie?), finding inside an alarming row of spindly lecture chairs, and then a sunlit terrace, and Michael Holroyd gently proffering a therapeutic drink, George Steiner nodding conspiratorially in a black French beret, and the tall unearthly figure of the poet Nathaniel Tarn, just back from South America, gravely congratulating me (as well as ‘that great wanderer Shelley’), and suddenly a sense of acceptance and huge relief, because it turned out I was a writer after all, and indeed part of a fellowship, and I have treasured this sunlit feeling ever since.
I was lucky to be elected at the age of 29, as a well-reviewed but little-known author of travel books. I felt it a huge privilege. It gave me a feeling of security within the profession. Whether merited or premature, the honour was inspiriting for my future more than if bestowed in middle age. (It also brought access to a distinguished echelon of writers in the dilapidated surroundings of the Secretary’s basement parties!)
I daresay the acronym frsl aided my first mortgage application (there was nothing else to commend me), and my father – a brigadier, respectful of honours – never wrote to me without appending frsl after my name. Perhaps it persuaded him finally that I was serious.
The life of a young, unknown writer is a lonely one. To me, it felt dark, as though I was trapped in some cold, underground space, with no evident way of escape. Then, miraculously, rescuers appeared and reached down and brought me up into the light. One important rescuer was the Royal Society of Literature. By electing me to its fellowship, it seemed to affirm that my work had value after all, that I could stand on a stage with the known and acclaimed writers I had for so long admired.
Looking back, I realise an RSL Fellowship gave me more confidence in my own voice as a writer. It even dispelled the Imposter Syndrome – temporarily.
I felt that being elected a Fellow formalised a sense of taking part in the way that literature evolves, this process that all readers and writers are taking part in pretty much paragraph by paragraph. Affirmation of potential is such a large part of what goes on in our minds when reading and writing, and that makes it especially delightful to think of a whole new wave of Fellows coming in.
In those days, the Fellow who had proposed you looked after you at the ceremony – in my case, it was Colin Thubron. And he was very thoughtful, then as now, because there was one Fellow present who was indignant, and thought I was not of sufficient reputation – too untested, too young – and told me so (though I had published a fair bit as it happens). Colin stepped in to defend me. I was about 38, and that wasn’t in fact as young then as it has become today, because many of us could leave home, find a place to live at a price we could afford on our first earnings (unimaginable today) – almost as soon as we liked, really. In my case, I went into journalism – Fleet Street and hot metal – to support my other writing. In the age of the precariat, such freedom and security sound unreal.
How could any young writer not be heartened by such an invitation? It was immensely fortifying to be asked to join this company of distinguished writers with a shared belief in literature.