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In Defence of Fossil Free Books

Howard Jacobson has denounced a campaign against arms manufacturers and fossil fuel companies sponsoring literary festivals, arguing that writers shouldn’t take political action. But his denunciation ignores that complicity is also a political act.

Fossil fuel and arms manufacturer linked Baillie Gifford no longer sponsors Hay festival. Photograph: Hay festival

A few years ago, Howard Jacobson and I were joined by Xiaolu Guo for an online panel discussion at the Willesden Jewish Cemetary. We were there to speak on the subject of ‘Death, The City and a Sense of Place’. I remember we all agreed to meet questions about the ‘writing process’ with refusal. How we write, we insisted, couldn’t be explained away on literary panels as if it were brand toothpaste or soap. 

I enjoyed Howard’s company that evening. I recall our conversation all the more keenly because it took place in 2020, the first year of lockdown, when establishing any relation between artists over distance felt earned. Hearing Howard speak on the mysteries of art, and art making, as to be protected and valued as an act of human inquiry felt as true to me then as it does now. 

So it was with great interest that I read his comments in the New Statesman on the furore over Fossil Free Books withdrawing their labour from a handful of book festivals. This collective action was taken in response to former sponsor Baillie Gifford’s investments in fossil fuel extraction and arms companies. The campaign led to several festivals dropping Baillie Gifford as a sponsor. Baillie Gifford then responded by pulling their sponsorship from all literature festivals in the UK.

As a member of Fossil Free Books, I was surprised to read that the bone to pick for Howard was that writers ought not to muddy themselves with political action. ‘The minute art makes up its mind, it’s no longer art’. I’d agree that art and advocacy arise in separate partitions of the heart. However, I wonder how far he believes in the separation. 

What Howard seems to be suggesting, particularly in regard to Fossil Free Books, echoes in what V.S. Naipaul once glibly implied: ‘ultimately you have to make a choice: you can be a writer or a missionary, but not both’. It’s a statement that has never quite convinced. To begin with, if ever there was an exquisite writer who was also a missionary, it was Naipaul. It’s just that his advocacy descended into the gutters of Hindu nationalism and anti-Muslim bigotry. 

Elsewhere, Nadine Gordimer, deeply invested in the struggle against South African apartheid, once edited a speech for Mandela while he was still an imprisoned pariah. Olga Tokarchuk, beloved in this country, has been branded an eco-terrorist by some quarters in her native Poland, and has faced despicable hostility for her activism around anti-semitism and homophobia. Tony Kushner, America’s greatest living playwright, has been a life-long advocate for the left. There is also Arundhati Roy, Nawal El Saadawi, Harold Pinter and Brecht. 

I’m not old enough to remember what the establishment commentariat thought of the Writer’s Action Group’s work that led to the Public Lending Right. I can’t recall what was said about Alice Oswald when she withdrew from the T.S. Eliot Prize over its sponsorship. I have read the speech John Berger gave calling attention to the financing of the Booker, however, and his observations still encircle us today: ‘in the end as well as in the beginning clarity is more important than money.’

There has been a great deal of ink spilled on Fossil Free Books this past week from establishment writers who have chosen to focus on ‘non-writing celebrities’ ‘flexing their muscles’, rather than addressing our rationale. There is also the more serious allegations of ‘bullying’ to respond to before we can delve further into the art and advocacy question. 

The members of Fossil Free Books work together to decide on strategy. We write copy, verify research, and work with journalists on stories. Our celebrity friends may help amplify calls to sign letters, but the organising is done by authors and book workers. As for ‘bullying’, Fossil Free Books is not a collective that has ever advocated or condoned this kind of thing. If it were, it certainly wouldn’t be a group that I would want to be associated with.

There also seems to be an astonishment at the swiftness with which we’ve managed to mobilise. During the pandemic, and the protests of those years, many were at pains to dismiss the legitimacy of collective action. By the sounds of it, some still do. Perhaps this is why words like ‘solidarity’ sound to Howard like ‘come-ons’ and conflation. As if words for kinship, coalition and assembly could never have accrued further meaning since they last felt useful to him. 

Fossil Free Books communicate using messaging apps every day. We cooperate in real-time, draft responses, organise training sessions, share literature on methodology and political philosophy, and take turns chairing meetings for new members each week. We retreat elsewhere to write alone. Some of us have completed plays during this time, and continue to write our novels. In the recesses, we take care of each other. We trust one another implicitly. 

Moreover, many of us have a personal stake in ensuring the political linkages Howard dismisses as ‘tenuous’ remain very much part of our daily conscience. Some of us have fled conflict and have had family members imprisoned under dictatorships. For us, state violence and injustice are more than stirring anecdotes recounted under a marquee. And while we also have members who experience better privilege, they too can bear to imagine the political and personal as one. 

It’s through our commitments to one another that we were able to reach over a million people when breaking the news of Baillie Gifford’s significant links to arms manufacturers in Israel. The asset manager held investments in Babcock International, an arms company which provides critical engineering services for warfare. Neither Howard nor anybody else would have known about these investments were it not for our actions. Those concerned with cultural institutions in this country may still believe firms invested in fossil fuel extraction or companies complicit in human rights abuses make acceptable sponsors, others may now see that such funding structures were never tenable in the first place. 

Howard can cast us as uppity infants if he wishes. Write that we’ve pitched up with college students ‘glamping’ across campuses ‘following in the footsteps of tyrants’. But there comes a time when once permissible industry norms can no longer continue. The laundering of artistic reputations what others call ‘greenwashing’ or ‘artswashing’ is beneath all of us. And we’re not alone in having had enough. Glance over at the successful artist boycott of Barclays at this year’s Latitude Festival and you’ll see a global tide turning.

I’m pleased Howard wouldn’t go so far as to call Fossil Free Books cynical. But elsewhere if the generally crude and vicious commentary directed at our withdrawal of labour, and the unimaginable loss of the ‘summer sun’ of literary festivals are anything to go by, how any of us will fare when the pace of change on a depleted earth becomes more severe, is anyone’s guess.

As for the here and now, I agree with Howard about many other things. The undue strain young writers face in our ‘censorious times’ frustrates me no end a writer should write what she likes. And while I have never called myself an activist, much like Howard, when issues move me to speak, I tend to. So, perhaps I should finish up with an outstretched arm, tying the one bearing heart-on-sleeve behind me for the moment, and say this: 

Howard, as someone who took great comfort in your company at a time when everybody, everywhere had been deprived of connection, I find your vision of what a writer ought to be rather lifeless. While we may come at this from different traditions, I hope we can agree that any conception of artistic temperament can be cultivated beyond the festival circuit. Beyond even the writer’s desk, and in dialogue with the present. The tradition I’ve chosen for myself is one where writers grapple with the most intractable problems of their times perhaps stumbling at junctures, and going too hurriedly but always to the good. Some of these writers I’ve already mentioned. Others, thanks to Fossil Free Books, I now count as my peers. 

I’m also reminded, Howard, that your description of art as ‘virtue and necessity’ can also be said of justice and equality. In a burning world, might we also want to value those who direct our sights toward ugly truths in the same way we hold our breaths over beautiful sentences?