Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials trilogy, has apologised for comments he made on social media in response to a debate over Kate Clanchy's critically acclaimed but now controversial memoir, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me.
It emerged this week that Clanchy is to rewrite her book, which is about her experiences during more than 30 years as a teacher, after widespread criticism of her portrayal of her pupils, particularly children of colour and autistic children.
Readers and fellow authors had been critical on Goodreads and Twitter of descriptions in the Orwell Prize-winning memoir, including the use of racial tropes such as “chocolate-coloured skin” and “almond-shaped eyes”, and references to one student as “African Jonathon” and to as another being “so small and square and Afghan with his big nose and premature moustache”.
Another passage was highlighted for the inclusion of ableist descriptions, in which Clanchy, who is also a poet, refers to two autistic children as “unselfconsciously odd” and “jarring company” and writes that “more than an hour a week” in their company would probably “irritate me, too, but for that hour I like them very much”.
Dara McAnulty, the award-winning teenage author and Irish Times contributor, who is autistic, shared the passages and tweeted: “Some people didn’t believe me when I shared some of my education experiences and how teachers felt about me … We can understand how you really feel about us.”
Initially, in a since-deleted tweet, Clanchy said she had been wrongfully accused of racism by reviewers on Goodreads. She later falsely claimed the quotes were “all made up”, then that the descriptions had been taken out of context.
Clanchy later apologised for “overreacting” to critical reader reviews and pledged to rewrite the book, calling the whole experience “humbling”. She wrote on Twitter: “I know I got many things wrong, and welcome the chance to write better, more lovingly.”
Pullman, who is also president of the UK’s Society of Authors, was one of several writers to defend Clanchy. He praised her memoir as “humane, warm, decent, generous, and welcoming”. In a now deleted comment, made in response to a tweet he wrongly thought to be about Clanchy, he wrote that those who do not read a book before condemning it would “find a comfortable home in Isis or the Taliban”.
Authors of colour who criticised Clanchy, including Chimene Suleyman, Monisha Rajesh and Sunny Singh, went on to receive racist abuse from social-media users. Pullman has now tweeted an apology for the harm he caused, admitting that his initial tweet was a "mistake". "Writers of colour (including children) and people of colour who are not writers (including children, again), your experiences and imaginations deserve every kind of respect," he added.
After an initial apology for the “emotional anguish” caused by the book, its publisher, Picador, was criticised for not responding quickly enough to the controversy. It has now said: “We realise our response was too slow. We vigorously condemn the despicable online bullying of many of those who have spoken out. This has no place in our community.” The publisher added that it apologised “profoundly for the hurt we have caused”.
The Orwell Foundation said that while it does not comment on the individual judging decisions of its jury, it acknowledged the “concerns and hurt” expressed about Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. “The foundation understands the importance of language and encourages open and careful debate about all the work which comes through our prizes,” it said. “Everyone should be able to engage in these discussions, on any platform, without fear of abuse.”
The Society of Authors has now asked the writers it represents “to be mindful of privilege and of the impact of what they create, do and say”, in an email to committee members. In the message, which has since been made public, the society distanced itself from Pullman’s initial defence of Clanchy. It emphasised that “Philip wrote his comments as an individual, not in the name of the Society of Authors”, and that “President is an honorary position only: he does not play any part in the governance of the SoA”.
The author Joanne Harris, chair of the society's democratically elected management committee, added, "I'd like to emphasise that not only do we deplore racism and prejudice in all its forms, but all our policies are active policies – they exist to make a real difference for people, and not just as words on a website."
Monisha Rajesh told the BBC she was unsure how the book could be updated given it was “riddled with racist and ableist tropes throughout”, including several phrases she said remained “rooted in eugenics and phrenology”. – Guardian, with additional reporting