Sun Sentinel Broward Edition
Writers back PEN gala amid protest
Others withdrew over Charlie Hebdo honor
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