The PEN – Charlie Hebdo Award Controversy

I’m so angry I could spit!

This year the PEN America Center, a writers’ organization whose mission is to defend the free expression of ideas in literature decided to bestow it’s Freedom of Expression and Courage Award to the staff of Charlie Hebdo.

In protest, six prominent authors: Rachel Kushner, Peter Carry, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, and Taije Selasi announced that they would not attend the ceremony. Thus began one of those periodic literary dust ups that only we few band of brothers in the book world care about. But, as they say, “ the politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low.”

Low, indeed, but I’m still so angry I could spit.

None other than Salman Rushdie launched the counter- attack. He said, “What I would say to both Peter and Michael and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”  Salman got down and became a little earthier on Twitter when he characterized the PEN 6 as “Just 6 pussies. Six authors in search of a bit of Character.”  [hear, hear Salman!]

Francine Prose responded on Facebook by throwing out red herrings expressing her shock that Rushdie would use the sexist term “pussies.”

Meanwhile short story writer Deborah Eisenberg weighed in with a letter to PEN executive director, Suzanne Nossel opposing  PEN’s giving the award to Charlie Hebdo. Depending on how you feel about the subject, her letter was either nuanced or unintelligible. I prefer the latter characterization.

During this entire affair,  when the world rallied in outrage over the Charlie Hebdo murders, when the leader of Hezbollah and the Likud Party in Israel both agreed on something for the first time in history, there was an ugly current among some left wing intellectuals that insisted on defining the offending caricatures in Charlie Hebdo as Islamophobic and undeserving of – well- anything. Most of them, like Deborah Eisenberg, were at pains to point out that they don’t believe in murder. And I’m sure this is true and also beside the point. But, as Salman points out, I wonder how deep is their commitment to free speech.

My favorite comment by an author and the one that I feel most reflects my opinion and feelings was by Geraldine Brooks. She said:” The point of free speech is that it’s free. Free to be offensive, to be misguided, to be crude or wrong. If you start to cherry pick which kind of speech is worthy of defending, you might as well be ISIS. I’m thoroughly shocked that a group of writers I admire have castigated a free speech organization for recognizing artists butchered because of their commitment to free speech.”

I  decided to say my peace on the subject. I wrote this letter to PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel:

“Dear Ms. Nossel,

I want to express my support for PEN in honoring Charlie Hebdo and also my indignation at the authors who have decided not to attend the awards in protest. I read the exchange of letters between you and Deborah Eisenberg. I thought her opinions that she expressed were unintelligible and indefensible.

The issue isn’t just a matter of abstract principle for me. I’m a literary agent. But before that I was the owner of Cody’s Books in Berkeley for 30 years. In 1989, Cody’s was bombed for carrying The Satanic Verses. It was another creative work that satirized religion and was no doubt extremely offensive to certain people. We were probably the first victim of Islamic terrorism in the United States. Afterwards the Cody’s staff had to decide whether we should continue carrying Satanic Verses. It wasn’t an easy choice at all. No one wanted to be martyrs to the cause. But the staff voted unanimously to keep carrying the book. Rushdie and the entire writing community stood united with us, and gave us courage.

I am glad you have honored Charlie Hebdo for showing their courage as well. I’m sorry those six writers have such short memories and such a weak and confused commitment to the values that PEN exists to defend.

I hope you will reaffirm your commitment to those values and to your decision to honor the courage of Charlie Hebdo.

Andy Ross”

Suzanne Nossel responded to my letter by saying: “Don’t worry. We are hanging tough.”

PEN has put up a website, a forum where people can make their own opinions known. I encourage you all to do so.


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5 Responses to “The PEN – Charlie Hebdo Award Controversy”

  1. Vi Says:


    Thank you for taking such a firm stand for free speech. When I was writing my multicultural, multi-religious book, one of my characters was a Muslim. I remember at the time wondering if when it was published, I would be targeted. The gal is a Sufi, a friend to the protagonist, a rebelling Christian gal. Other characters had a variety of religious persuasions. The Sufi gal is a sweet person. That was in the 90s. It never made it to publication, but I decided that if one didn’t stand up for freedom of speech, we might as well kiss the world goodbye now. Life where we have to be so very careful of what we say and how we say it, is not worth living, and our kids going off to war are fighting for nothing. Freedom under those circumstances does not exist. Even now, with everyone combing what we say on social media so they can find fault and put us in jail is not freedom. It’s tyranny, and we are indeed living in the Big Brother society Wells warned us about.

    Once upon a time I met a gal who was wondering whether or not to become involved with Rushdie. She was afraid. I advised her to follow her heart, and that true love was worth it. I lost track of her and can’t even remember her name. But…why bother having a life if one has to live in a box which is nailed shut by the brutality and ignorance of others.

    I know about murder. My brother murdered his neighbors. If he gets out of jail he is likely to kill me. But I will not hide from him, nor anyone else. Some things are worth standing up for.

  2. Roland De Wolk Says:

    it’s not just the books bros. who care. anyone who cares about the foundation of a free & democratic society — journalists, academics, artists, pg&e linemen — care a
    nd should care. i’ll never read another peter carey novel again.

  3. Vi Says:

    We are embroiled in World War III – a war about the freedom to be ourselves. I wonder how many people have realized this.

  4. Ti Says:

    I am curious whether the benefit of hindsight has altered your view on this at all. Mainly, I have in mind Trump’s rise to power on the back of his repudiation of “political correctness” and the alt-right’s rampant misappropriation of the concept of “free speech.” In my view, Trump is the embodiment of hate speech lionized as “free speech.” Trump is willing to say what no one else (out of common decency) would dare — does this somehow make him a hero? If he were assassinated by someone from a “shithole” country, would we confer on him posthumous awards for his courageous defense of “free speech”? (I would like to think not, but having lived through 2016-17, I take nothing for granted.)

    Is the alt-right correct that denying racists and Nazi sympathizers (Milo Yiannopoulos, Richard Spencer) public platforms from which to disseminate their “ideas” constitutes censorship and an assault on free speech? Was Heather Heyer a champion of freedom, or a foe?

    I think it is time to face up to the reality that extremists have seized power in America via a twofold tactic of appealing to our basest instincts and taking advantage of a liberal naivete which cannot appreciate the difference between “free speech” and speech that actually promotes freedom.

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