Tomorrow’s PEN literary gala, held under the Museum of Natural History’s luminescent whale, may well be the most interesting in the free-speech organization’s nearly century-long history. Little more than a week ago, six “table hosts” withdrew from the gala over PEN America’s plan to bestow its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the Muhammad-mocking French newspaper whose staff members were massacred by extremists in January. Last Wednesday, we sat down in PEN’s airy but functional offices with its new president, the writer Andrew Solomon, to get his perspective. Just two hours before we met, an email petition had been released, bearing the signatures of 35 PEN members vowing to “disassociate” themselves from the decision. Since then, that list has grown past 200; PEN has found replacement hosts (including Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman); and Solomon and PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel have published an op-ed defending the award in the New York Times.
You only became the president of PEN in March. Has it been turning out as you’d envisioned it?
When they persuaded me to join, they said it was really a very straightforward and undemanding job.
The last week has been challenging in ways that were not much aligned with how I imagined the job. Joel Conarroe, a former president of PEN, just wrote to me and said, “I remember herding cats. I hope you’re finding it easier than I did.” But I feel like part of the point is not to herd everyone, it’s to hear everyone’s points of view and expose them.
That doesn’t mean you’re happy with how things have gone, does it?
It seemed very rapidly to escalate in a way that I don’t think has served anyone’s interests. The implication has been that it’s somehow an us-against-them situation — I don’t think that is what’s going on. Six people who are PEN members decided that they preferred to not be hosts. None of them said, “We hate PEN and want nothing to do with you.”
But the petition changes the picture, doesn’t it?
It was odd that it came from a made-up email address. There’s a sense through all of this of not quite being able to pin down who is saying or doing what. And we have tried to be as transparent as we can.
Its origins were anonymous, but prominent people have signed it.
I think there are more productive ways of going about explaining opinions than a petition. I mean, if 100 writers wished to tell us that they don’t agree with the decision to present this award, then we would like to be able to hear them. We would just like it to be happening in a dialogue rather than in a petition. I feel like in the era of Change.org, petitions attempt to shift policy of every kind at every level, from your local parent-teacher association to the Russian government. I’m not sure that circulating a petition moves toward a fruitful consensus.
Do you think there’s anything to their objection that Hebdo is offensive to oppressed people and therefore undeserving of PEN’s honor?
I think there are arguments to be made about the contents. Satire seems to me to be an accepted mode of expression and warrants protection. But in any case, the argument isn’t about whether this is good satire, whether these are good cartoons. The way this schismatic engine has been driven forward has somehow left many of the people thinking either that we believe that the people making objections are somehow out of bounds, which is not accurate, or that we are endorsing the content of the magazine, which is also not accurate.
But the decision to honor Charlie Hebdo was made before you became president. Would you personally have done it?
Yes, I think I would have made that choice. Let me be more direct: I would have made that choice. If we value free speech, then this question of the assassin’s veto is a key one. PEN has a very long history of trying to defend the right of freedom of expression of people who are being silenced by government. But in more recent years, there have been independent groups attempting to close down public discourse — to cause people to say, “Oh, well, let’s just not talk about those things, it seems like the price is too high.” We admire the people at Charlie Hebdo for refusing to close down the conversation.
Ultimately, you believe that Charlie Hebdo isn’t Islamophobic.
I accept (assassinated Hebdo cartoonist) Charb’s statement that he felt that it had taken several hundred years to get to the point at which satire against the Catholic church was banal — and that it is important for us to banalize Islam as well, so that it becomes simply a topic that anyone can say what they want about.
Even if what they say is objectionable.
Internationally, PEN has given many awards to prisoners in a variety of foreign countries. If we were to get the complete works of those writers and submit them for general consumption, there would almost always be content in them with which we strongly disagree. I think with Charlie Hebdo, people have had much more access to than they have had to the writing of an imprisoned Uighur writer in central China, but if everyone had full access to everything, there would always be questions to be asked.
In one of your statements in response to the protest, you wrote: “The rising prevalence of various efforts to delimit speech and narrow the bounds of permitted speech concern us.” Did I detect an echo of recent critiques, like the one made by New York’s Jonathan Chait, of a new culture of political correctness in academia and social media?
I thought that was a very, very strong piece, and in fact we have been in discussions here about whether we should begin a project to examine the questions that it brought up, and our intention is to do so. We haven’t amassed all the data, but we have all been concerned by the idea that anyone is able to close down speech, either from the left or from the right.
PEN America has also issued reports on NSA spying and the suppression of the press in Ferguson. Are you aiming to handle more domestic issues?
Yes, it’s one of the things that I feel very strongly about. We would not want to see PEN as a sort of smug American organization that looks at how terrible people are in other places. Many bad things are being done here.
At some points in this debate, writers have mentioned the fact that Suzanne Nossel once worked for the State department. Two years ago, the journalist Chris Hedges left PEN for exactly that reason. Does her history compromise PEN’s mission?
I think there’s often a tendency to try in a polarizing way to say the government is corrupt, everything they’ve done is corrupt, we can have no connection to the government. To say the people are pure; the people are righteous. It’s kind of the rhetoric, it seems to me, of the 1917 revolution. And my point of view is: If what you want to do is to expand the scope of human rights, it’s necessary to work with government, and to have enough knowledge of how it works to be able to give an informed critique. Suzanne’s experience in the administration has not tarnished her. It’s not as if she had been serving in the Hutu Power movement in Rwanda. She’s served in the Obama administration, which has done good and bad things. There are many problems, and we continue to try to address those problems.
Some of the writers who will attend tomorrow’s gala might not applaud. Some might boo, or worse. Are you okay with that?
Well, what I would consider unacceptable would be acts of violence. I think people throwing rotten tomatoes at the spokesmen for Charlie Hebdo would not be acceptable. But I certainly feel that people have the right not to stand up, and if people want to boo, they should have the opportunity to boo. I hope the people who choose to do so would be fully informed.
Do you think people are not fully informed right now?
I think a lot of people have taken others at their word that this was an intensely racist publication that was damaging to the cause of Muslims in France, and I think there’s a lot of debate within France by Muslims that suggests that’s not the case. But I think if people are fully informed, then it’s free expression. We’re all for free expression.
How are final preparations for the gala shaping up?
It’s a bit suspenseful. There are changing details every day. I had written a lovely speech for the gala, and I’m hoping that if I put it on ice, it might be appropriate next year instead, but it’s certainly not the direction to go in this year. It would be nice if we were all just focused on seating plans and hors d’oeuvres and people would come and cheer for everything we believe in. That would be more relaxing. But it’s going to be a very memorable occasion, and it will be very difficult for there to be very many people in the room who just came to have a nice meal and to wear a fancy dress. I would have preferred that all of this not explode in the way that it has, but we may ultimately have an evening which is not only a good fund-raiser, but also an impetus to intellectual engagement with the very things we stand for.