What’s Wrong With PEN America, and Why We Need It To Survive

by 24USATVMay 9, 2024, 3:01 p.m. 26
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Last summer I listened to Tina Brown read the audio version of her 2017 memoir The Vanity Fair Diaries: Power, Wealth, Celebrity, and Dreams: My Years at the Magazine That Defined a Decade, and I gasped when I got to the part quoted above, in which Brown recounts the events of the 1987 PEN Gala she had vice-chaired with Gayfryd Steinberg, a woman who the New York Post once called “Park Avenue aristocracy.” It was a real clarifying, “he admit it” kind of moment for me: PEN America is an organization funded by socialites who don’t particularly care about writers.

I had been a member of PEN America since I put out a book in 2015 and when I joined I thought it was vital organization with an unimpeachable mission: defending writers facing attacks on free speech. As we’ve seen recently with a bunch of “free speech absolutists” who turn out to very much not be, it’s rarely that simple.

I had begun to sour on PEN after I was asked to consult on a project released last year that they ended up calling Booklash, in which false equivalencies ran rampant. PEN presented 16 case studies of “problematic” books being “canceled,” and the problem with explaining the report to you is that the books they chose didn’t have a lot in common: American Dirt, Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth, Mike Pence’s memoir. I had a lot of issues with the report, most having to do with the fact that books were being banned widely by the right, and yet we were spending so much time on 16 titles. Censorship, PEN America insisted, was coming from both sides. I beg to differ. American Dirt may have received lots of (rightful) criticism, but it sold millions of copies. This, ahem, is not censorship.

In my response to the study, I mentioned that the outcome of publishers just beginning to think about diversity is that people with “different points of view” are often entry level workers who are overworked and underpaid and don’t have many avenues to express their opinions. So when employees learn that their employer is, for instance, platforming an author who places them or their loved ones in danger (hi Mike Pence!), they revolt. What other avenues do they have? (You can read my whole rant here).

So I hated Booklash, but still, I was encouraged when PEN put together a panel for their post-October 7 Annual General Meeting in which to “explore the ripple effects of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, a panel of writers with disparate views came together to discuss the challenge of keeping civil discourse alive.” This was the reason they existed: to facilitate tough conversations, to promote solidarity.

But then I watched the panel. It featured only one Palestinian person, a novelist, along with three Jewish writers (one of whom was anti-Zionist, but still). It wasn’t a fair fight, but it also wasn’t supposed to be a fight at all. This was supposed to be an open forum to talk about both sides. I watched them talk over her until I could no longer bear it and had to turn it off.

There was clearly bias in PEN’s coverage of the war on Gaza, and it would only get worse. By the time I saw the video of Randa Jarrar being forcibly removed from a PEN event for protesting it was becoming clear that although PEN values both sides, it values the Zionist cause a little bit more. I’ve already written about how the weaponization of the idea of antisemitism is damaging the literary world (the commenters did not like it, but I’m very proud to have written it).

By the time a bunch of writers I admire deeply like Naomi Klein, Lorrie Moore, and Isabella Hammad wrote an open letter dropping out of the PEN World Voices Festival, it had become clear that PEN would not “join other leading human rights organizations and United Nations officials in the demands for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire.”

Following its April 26 announcement of the cancellation of this year’s PEN Awards and World Voices Festival, an article in The Atlantic highlighted PEN America’s audacious claim that it is “above politics.” As if a free speech organization could function outside of the political, as if this organization funded by socialites, for socialites, was interested in doing anything other than maintaining the status quo.

As college students across America are finding out, some free speech is more privileged than others. PEN’s statement on campus protests was as wishy washy as I’d come to expect.

Once again the appeal to both sides, as if the discomfort of some American Jews was equivalent to the deaths of thousands upon thousands of Palestinian people and the destruction of their land and their institutions.

Speaking out and expressing dissent are the most democratic of political institutions, the ones I thought PEN was fighting for when I joined in 2015. But PEN defenders don’t see it that way. In a May 3 piece with the headline “When Writers Silence Writers,” board member George Packer equates criticism from members with silencing. It’s encouraging to see Dinaw Mengestu, the vice president of PEN, acknowledge in a response to Packer’s piece the validity of such criticism: “It’s hard to overstate the degree to which [Packer’s] piece perverts and distorts the legitimate and necessary criticisms against PEN America, while at the same time reducing the horrific and ongoing massacre in Gaza to a cause that might be compelling.”

There is so much more work to do. It’s disheartening to watch PEN make misstep after misstep, getting in its own way again and again when we urgently need to combat, among other things, the book bans that are plaguing this country.

An earlier version of this piece appeared at Maris Kreizman’s Substack, The Maris Review.

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