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.
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.