How and Why 35 Writers Denounced PEN Over Charlie Hebdo

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Photo: Rob Stothard/Getty

This afternoon, a letter went out to members of the PEN American Center — not an official communique but a letter of dissent, boasting 35 signatories and soliciting many more. It concluded, "We the undersigned, as writers, thinkers, and members of PEN, therefore respectfully wish to disassociate ourselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo." The list of writers below included Junot Díaz, Peter Carey, Rick Moody, Joyce Carol Oates, and Wallace Shawn. (Most of this story was published before the letter was sent, and has been updated to reflect the developments.)

To look at the letter (which appears in full below), the signatories, and the potentially vast list of undisclosed recipients, it's hard to believe nothing of this new campaign existed a week ago. 

This past Sunday, the day after a calamitous earthquake in Nepal and the day before riots broke out in Baltimore, the news broke that a half-dozen writers had decided to withdraw from a literary gala. The weekend’s series of withdrawals came as a complete surprise to the organizers of the PEN American Center’s annual $1,250-a-plate fund-raiser, which serves the well-heeled, boldface-named group’s righteous mission of advancing free expression for writers around the world. In short order, six out of 64 “table hosts” — Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi — withdrew from the party, held at the Museum of Natural History, over PEN’s decision to give Charlie Hebdo the award. (It will be presented to Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who survived the January massacre of eight fellow staff members in their Paris office.)

For all its swiftness, the minor PEN revolt over Hebdo’s offensive depictions of Muslims had been brewing for some time. Ever since the attack and the subsequent outpouring of “Je Suis Charlie” solidarity, a vocal minority of writers have distanced themselves from the magazine, usually on the grounds that its secular satire was needlessly provocative — perhaps to the point of hate speech — and aimed at dispossessed French Muslims. Depending on how you look at it and whom you ask, the PEN protest was either a targeted, semi-coordinated strike or, in the words of one writer’s tweet, “a shitshow.” 

On March 27, two days after PEN announced the Hebdo honor, PEN member Deborah Eisenberg (not a table host) wrote to executive director Suzanne Nossel to object at length. A revered short-story writer with a strong leftist-activist bent (along with her partner, actor and playwright Wallace Shawn), Eisenberg attacked the paper’s crude illustrations as offensive not just to fundamentalists but to all Muslims (particularly those marginalized in France). She added that PEN’s decision to salute Hebdoalmost looks less like an endorsement of free expression than like an opportunistic exploitation of the horrible murders in Paris to justify and glorify offensive material expressing anti-Islamic and nationalistic sentiments already widely shared in the Western world.”

Nossel’s even longer reply drew on her 18 months working for Obama’s State Department, part of it spent fighting anti-speech laws — perhaps not the wisest point of emphasis, considering that those opposed to Hebdo tend to frown on the current State Department, too. (Journalist Chris Hedges resigned from PEN two years ago over Nossel’s past work.) But for all its freedom-fighting rhetoric, PEN has always been less a radical alliance than a big-tent liberal organization. Pairing a singular focus on free speech with a membership restricted to published professionals, PEN is part ACLU, part social club. (I’m a member.) Past president Salman Rushdie, PEN’s strongest defender this week, is the perfect exemplar — once hunted for blasphemy, now a social butterfly of the Establishment. But there is no typical member; PEN is a large, occasionally fractious family.

Nossel wrote Eisenberg that membership had in fact spiked after the attack — an organic show of support, rather than the product of exploitation. “I understand,” she wrote, “that it can seem self-serving for an organization like ours to build on a high-profile event to generate support for our cause. But we only do it when we judge that the events and those involved are firmly consonant with our mission.”

News stories on Sunday referenced Eisenberg’s letter as an unrelated example of brewing dissent. In fact, her exchange had made the rounds of sympathetic writers, and she shared her dismay with others early on. Her letter had proposed Edward Snowden go-between Glenn Greenwald as an alternative PEN honoree, and Greenwald was looped into conversations this past weekend. Cole and Greenwald had both written pieces questioning the lionization of Charlie Hebdo. They and Kushner are vocal critics of Western policies that, they argue, kill and suppress far more people than terrorists in Europe; their protest is a dissent of the literary left from the liberal middle. Greenwald was given Eisenberg’s communications with Nossel, which he published on his crusading website, the Intercept, the day after the Times broke the story.  

Cole expressed to another writer his hope that the Intercept story, for which he wrote a four-paragraph postscript, would counter the Times piece — which had closed with Rushdie saying, in part, “If PEN as a free speech organization can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organization is not worth the name.” He was less temperate in a Sunday tweet: “The award will be given. PEN is holding firm. Just 6 pussies. Six Authors in Search of a bit of Character.” 

So why did all those letters come out in a rush a little more than a week before the May 5 gala, leaving PEN scrambling? Last week, PEN began checking in with hosts on the details of their attendance; it’s possible that the writers (some separate, some together) finally saw that the time had come to act.

The memoirist and novelist Porochista Khakpour heard from PEN last Friday; an organizer asked for the name of her date. (Naturally, security will be very tight this year.) She had actually heard the previous day from Kushner, whom she'd met once before, who asked whether Khakpour would consider withdrawing in protest if she knew that other writers would do the same. Then she forwarded Khakpour the Eisenberg exchange, drawing attention to Nossel’s former work for the U.S. government. The words “conscience” and “hegemony” came up.

Kushner wrote to me that she acted more or less independently. “I was in touch with one or two people, who were themselves in touch with others.” Carey, she said, withdrew on his own. “It was to some degree a complete and utter coincidence that some withdrew just at the moment that others were on the verge of doing so.” But the effort had certainly grown coordinated by Friday, when Kushner rushed off her own letter, and today's public letter of protest has been in the works since Sunday at the very latest, when Cole wrote to Khakpour about it.

Khakpour was in fact deeply troubled by the mass tributes to Charlie Hebdo; she’d been assigned several editorials about it in January but had withdrawn over worries she’d be misrepresented. “There were all these liberal people standing with Charlie,” she says now, “using this brown minstrel imagery that was all over social media.” But she wrote to Kushner that she preferred not to withdraw. “I don’t believe in boycotts anymore,” says Khakpour. “That to me is not the revolution. I told her I would really participate if within the event we could express our dismay — like turning our backs or joining in with booing.*

But the decision had already been made; Kushner insisted that more withdrawals would send a clearer, stronger message. On Saturday evening, after five writers had already sent letters, Cole wrote a second appeal to Khakpour. He told her he was reaching out to writers individually to see if they’d join the dissidents. (Cole declined to comment for this story.)  She replied that she had already expressed her disapproval of Hebdo to PEN, vowing not to applaud as the magazine accepted the prize — and reiterating that she planned to attend. One last writer did withdraw, though: Taiye Selasi, a young author of British African descent. PEN says no other writers have withdrawn since.

On Monday, Solomon and Nossel both wrote to support Khakpour’s refusal to applaud. (One of several statements on PEN’s website read, “At PEN, we never shy away from controversy nor demand uniformity of opinion across our ranks.”) By then, the story was everywhere. A panel discussion was scheduled for the morning of the gala, featuring Thoret and others. Though billed as a forum to address the controversy, it was planned in advance of the weekend; PEN spokesperson Sarah Edkins reported last night having “a number of strong leads” on anti-Hebdo panelists, but no one confirmed.

It’s typical of such minor controversies among otherwise very like-minded people that the sides are never as clearly drawn as they seem. The few PEN table hosts who’ve agreed to comment to me on the affair ranged in their reactions from categorical support to deep discomfort.

“To me this is about the defense of an essential right — the right to freedom of expression,” wrote New Yorker editor David Remnick in an email. “It was right to defend Salman Rushdie when he was under attack and it is right to defend those under attack now.”

The novelist Louis Begley, a former PEN president and a Holocaust survivor, was a little more ambivalent: “Well, look, I think that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are vulgar and very often stupid. That is not, however, a reason for assassinating the staff of the magazine. To recognize the fact that they died in the cause of free speech is perfectly appropriate. Would I have chosen Charlie Hebdo to receive this award? Probably not. But that’s neither here nor there. This decision strikes me as legitimate.” 

Another host, Kurt Andersen, said that free-speech advocates “are not going to be perfect exemplars of what one would do.” To equate honoring Hebdo with praising racist fraternities or Nazi newspapers, as Eisenberg did in her letter to Nossel, is “crazily over-the-top.” But the question of whether Hebdo’s sins render it undeserving, despite its literal martyrdom to the cause, is both polarizing and impossible to resolve. “My feeling is, have the conversation you want, but this is one of those incidents that makes a clear line, and you’re on either one side or the other.” 

All the writers who’ve withdrawn are still members of PEN; three are participating in the PEN World Voices Festival, next week’s series of talks and appearances by 100 international writers. On Monday night, several members convened in Montclair, New Jersey, for a reading from Mohamedou Ould Slahl’s book Guantánamo Diary; among the hosts was Suzanne Nossel, and among the readers was Deborah Eisenberg. In that crowd, at that moment, the indignities of Guantánamo were a refreshing subject to address — the kind on which everyone agreed.

The full letter sent earlier this afternoon:

Dear colleague, 

If you are in sympathy with the following statement from some of your fellow members of PEN, please reply, and your name will be added to the list of signatories.

Thank you.

April 26, 2015

In March it was announced that the PEN Literary Gala, to be held May 5th 2015, would honor the magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award in response to the January 7 attacks that claimed the lives of many members of its editorial staff.

It is clear and inarguable that the murder of a dozen people in the Charlie Hebdo offices is sickening and tragic. What is neither clear nor inarguable is the decision to confer an award for courageous freedom of expression on Charlie Hebdo, or what criteria, exactly, were used to make that decision.

We do not believe in censoring expression. An expression of views, however disagreeable, is certainly not to be answered by violence or murder. 

However, there is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.

In the aftermath of the attacks, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons were characterized as satire and “equal opportunity offense,” and the magazine seems to be entirely sincere in its anarchic expressions of disdain toward organized religion. But in an unequal society, equal opportunity offense does not have an equal effect.

Power and prestige are elements that must be recognized in considering almost any form of discourse, including satire. The inequities between the person holding the pen and the subject fixed on paper by that pen cannot, and must not, be ignored.

To the section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized, a population that is shaped by the legacy of France’s various colonial enterprises, and that contains a large percentage of devout Muslims, Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.

Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.

In our view, PEN America could have chosen to confer its PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award upon any of a number of journalists and whistleblowers who have risked, and sometimes lost, their freedom (and even their lives) in service of the greater good.

PEN is an essential organization in the global battle for freedom of expression. It is therefore disheartening to see that PEN America has chosen to honor the work and mission of Charlie Hebdo above those who not only exemplify the principles of free expression, but whose courage, even when provocative and discomfiting, has also been pointedly exercised for the good of humanity.

We the undersigned, as writers, thinkers, and members of PEN, therefore respectfully wish to disassociate ourselves from PEN America’s decision to give the 2015 Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo.

Chris Abani

Russell Banks

Peter Carey

Teju Cole

Junot Díaz

Deborah Eisenberg

Eve Ensler

Nell Freudenberger

Keith Gessen

Francisco Goldman

Edward Hoagland

Nancy Kricorian

Amitava Kumar

Rachel Kushner

Zachary Lazar

Patrick McGrath

Rick Moody

Lorrie Moore

Joyce Carol Oates

Michael Ondaatje

Raj Patel

Francine Prose

Sarah Schulman

Taiye Selasi

Kamila Shamsie

Wallace Shawn

Charles Simic

Rebecca Solnit

Linda Spalding

Scott Spencer

Chase Twichell

Eliot Weinberger

Jon Wiener

Dave Zirin

*This article has been updated to clarify a quote from Porochista Khakpour and to note that Khakpour and Rachel Kushner had met once before Kushner contacted Khakpour about the boycott.