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Writ­ers back PEN gala amid protest

Oth­ers with­drew over Char­lie Hebdo honor

- By Hil­lel Italie As­so­ci­ated Press

NEW YORK — Neil Gaiman, Art Spiegel­man and Alison Bechdel are among the writ­ers who have agreed to be ta­ble hosts at this week’s PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter gala af­ter six au­thors with­drew in protest of an award be­ing given to the satir­i­cal French news­pa­per Char­lie Hebdo.

The lit­er­ary and hu­man rights or­ga­ni­za­tion said over the week­end that the other new hosts are Ge­orge Packer, Azar Nafisi and Alain Ma­banckou, a Con­golese-born French au­thor who will present the award to Hebdo’s edi­tor in chief Ger­ard Biard and critic and es­say­ist Jean-Bap­tiste Thoret. PEN is giv­ing the mag­a­zine a Free­dom of Ex­pres­sion Courage award, a de­ci­sion that has been fiercely de­fended and crit­i­cized.

“I was hon­ored to be in­vited to host a ta­ble,” Gaiman wrote in an email Sun­day. “The Char­lie Hebdo car­toon­ists are get­ting an award for courage: They con­tin­ued putting out their mag­a­zine af­ter the of­fices were fire­bombed, and the sur­vivors have con­tin­ued fol­low­ing the mur­ders.”

The lit­er­ary world has been in a civil war of words since PEN an­nounced two weeks ago that Michael On­daatje, Francine Prose and four other ta­ble hosts pulled out from the gala, cit­ing what they say are the of­fen­sive car­toons of Mus­lims in Char­lie Hebdo.

A stream of tweets, let­ters, Face­book post­ings and opin­ion pieces has di­vided old friends such as for­mer PEN pres­i­dents Prose and Sal­man Rushdie, a lead­ing backer of the honor, and even set sib­lings on op­po­site sides.

Au­thor-jour­nal­ist Masha Gessen is a ta­ble host, while her brother, au­thor and mag­a­zine edi­tor Keith Gessen, is among more than 200 writ­ers and oth­ers in pub­lish­ing who have signed an open let­ter ob­ject­ing to the award.

“I haven’t dis­cussed the award con­tro­versy with my brother, but this isn’t the first time he and I have dis­agreed on a po­lit­i­cal is­sue,” Masha Gessen wrote in an email. “I don’t love him any less for be­ing wrong!”

Gessen will be among more than 60 hosts at Tues­day’s gala, the cen­ter­piece of PEN’s an­nual World Voices Fes­ti­val. Oth­ers re­ceiv­ing awards in­clude play­wright Tom Stop­pard, Azer­bai­jani jour­nal­ist Khadija Is­may­ilova and Pen­guin Ran­dom House CEO Markus Dohle.

Char­lie Hebdo has been a source of painful con­tro­versy since the Jan­uary shoot­ings at the mag­a­zine’s Paris of­fices that left 12 dead. Both sides of the PEN de­bate have ex­pressed sup­port for Hebdo’s right to pub­lish and for PEN’s gen- eral mission of speak­ing out for writ­ers in peril. But they dis­agree on two other points: Whether the mag­a­zine’s car­toons of Mus­lims lam­poon bigotry, or are acts of bigotry; and whether the award is an en­dorse­ment of Hebdo’s con­tent.

“We do not be­lieve in cen­sor­ing ex­pres­sion. An ex­pres­sion of views, how­ever dis­agree­able, is cer­tainly not to be an­swered by vi­o­lence or mur­der,” reads the let­ter of protest to PEN, for which sup­port­ers be­sides Keith Gessen in­clude Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates and Lor­rie Moore.

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

PEN of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion pres­i­dent An­drew Solomon, have said the award is not for the mag­a­zine’s con­tent, while also prais­ing satire as a valid and valu­able form of so­cial crit­i­cism. In a post­ing on its web site re­cently, PEN noted that it has been urged to pre­pare a counter-let­ter, but de­cided not to.

“We feel strongly that ask­ing writ­ers to de­clare them­selves for or against over­sim­pli­fies and need­lessly po­lar­izes a com­plex is­sue,” reads the post­ing on www.pen.org.

Gaiman, in his email, said he was puz­zled that “sev­eral oth­er­wise wellmean­ing writ­ers have failed to grasp that you do not have to like what is said to sup­port peo­ple’s right to say it.”

Also fa­vor­ing the prize is David Cro­nen­berg, the film­maker who last year pub­lished his first novel.

“There is a weird, ser­pen­tine po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness be­ing ex­pressed here,” Cro­nen­berg, in an email sent through lit­er­ary agent An­drew Wylie, wrote of the award’s op­po­nents.

“I salute PEN and ap­plaud their award to Char­lie Hebdo.”

“There is a weird, ser­pen­tine po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness be­ing ex­pressed here.” —David Cro­nen­berg, film­maker and writer

 ?? ULF AN­DER­SEN/GETTY ?? Writer Neil Gaiman says he was “hon­ored to be in­vited to host a ta­ble” at the PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter event.
ULF AN­DER­SEN/GETTY Writer Neil Gaiman says he was “hon­ored to be in­vited to host a ta­ble” at the PEN Amer­i­can Cen­ter event.

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