PEN America Chooses The Most Cowardly Words

PEN America, the century-old non-profit that “stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide,” is in crisis because of its craven response to Israel’s ongoing obliteration of Gaza and the Palestinians for whom it is home. Protests against the organization from prominent writers like Naomi Klein and Lorrie Moore have snowballed into larger questions about the foundation of PEN’s existence, including allegations from winners of its prison writing awards that they never actually received their (measly) cash prizes.

The protests became more emphatic this month when PEN America announced the longlists for its Literary Awards, which offer tens of thousands of dollars to winners. According to Literary Hub, 29 writers and translators out of 87 nominees had withdrawn from the awards as of Wednesday, including all but one of the 10 considered for its $75,000 major prize. An open letter from many of the longlisted writers, which called for new leadership at the organization, said that “PEN America was slow to speak on this incomparable loss of Palestinian life—and when PEN did decide to speak, the organization’s statements showed a lack of proportional empathy, and were often laced with ahistorical, Zionist propaganda under the guise of neutrality.”

In response to the withdrawals, PEN America President Jennifer Finney Boylan released a statement on Thursday. The purpose of all of this is the organization’s plan for a committee to “review” PEN America’s work of recent months and years in an effort “to ensure we are aligned with our mission and make recommendations about how we respond to future conflicts.” When considering the standard you’d expect from a non-profit devoted to writers, this is one of the worst things I’ve ever read. Here’s how it starts:

A unique delight of language is the poetry inherent in collective nouns: a pride of lions, a crash of rhinoceroses, a mustering of storks. Personally, I’ve always been partial to an unkindness of ravens. If you’ve ever encountered a group of them doing battle with a scurry of squirrels, as I have at my home in Maine, you know exactly how cruel an unkindness can be.

What, then, do you call a group of poets, essayists, and novelists? My suggestion? A schism of writers.

Rule No. 1 about responding to claims that you’ve shrugged off a genocide: Do not start by name-checking your house in Maine.

Since the beginning of the Gaza war, PEN America—one of the country’s largest advocacy groups for authors, and which I serve as President—has been riven by the differing responses to the ongoing tragedy by the many writers in our community.

Make no mistake: it is easy enough to condemn Israel in the wake of the 32,000 civilian deaths thus far in Gaza. It is an abomination.

In Boylan’s vagueness here she almost makes a startlingly strong point. The most logical way to read that final sentence, to me, is that she is saying “Israel is an abomination.” But taking into account the deflection of phrases like “has been riven by the differing responses” and “in the wake of the 32,000 civilian deaths,” it’s hard to believe she’s actually assigning any real responsibility. Either way, she very quickly moves to the real issue: “These are hard days for those who oppose the suppression of freedom of expression.” Further down:

One of my first acts as PEN President was to travel to Jerusalem to talk with a Palestinian poet; to Tel Aviv to talk with a group of Israeli writers, including a nascent PEN Israel, some of whose members are ardent dissidents and critics of the government; to Haifa to talk with Palestinian citizens of Israel, some of whom have been threatened with jail for criticizing the Netanyahu government. I also met with leading human rights lawyers and advocates defending writers facing repression.

One conclusion I drew from those conversations came as no surprise—that these divisions are as deep, and as bloody, as history itself. But I also learned that it is conversation between writers from different cultures—not silence—that can constitute the first fragile step toward understanding.

I’ve seen this kind of grand gesturing from ostensibly left-leaning theater orgs as well as literary ones. When these places have been too afraid or too ignorant to speak the truth about Palestine, they hide behind the unimpeachable virtues of debate and expression. In claiming to support the multitude of positions, they shrug off responsibility for knowing right from wrong, since the ambiguity allows the leadership to passively take credit for whichever argument a donor prefers.

I have heard from many, many authors who do not agree with those withdrawing from PEN events, and who do not wish to withdraw from our events themselves, but are afraid of the consequences if they speak up.

What kind of art can be created in a culture in which some voices remain unheard?

I ask this as someone whose memoir, She’s Not There, was banned this year in some school districts in Texas. This is a book which I have been told has literally saved the lives of some of its readers, and which has given trans people hope when they had lost all of their own. But in some school districts in Texas, stories like mine are considered so dangerous they must be erased.

I do not wish to live in a country in which authors’ voices are erased.

This is a shared goal. The systematic erasure of Palestine—its food, its schools, its hospitals, its children—is precisely what so many writers are passionate about.

It is worth confessing that I have, on many occasions, exhibited exactly the kind of intolerance and cowardice I am now describing. Time and time again I have mocked and trolled and even called for the silencing of people with whom I disagree. It felt good at the time.

It doesn’t feel so good now.

“That’s a really insightful thought. Well unfortunately our hour is now up, so…”

I took on the job of PEN president fully intimidated by the legacy of those who have occupied this post before me: Susan Sontag, Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller, Salman Rushdie, Ayad Akhtar, Jennifer Egan. Compared to these luminaries, I frequently fear I can only come up short. Is a comic transgender memoirist really what the current moment calls for? What skills do I have, after all, besides my fundamental belief that we should all, somehow, find a way to love one another, and forgive each other for the mistakes that we have made?

I bolded that sentence myself, because it made me clench my fists. There’s nothing worse than a person in a prestigious position trying to claim they may not deserve it, unless it’s at the end of a resignation letter. But cynically deploying your own transness as an apparent excuse for incompetence is sickening. I’d understand if the sentence was simply, “Is a comic memoirist really what the current moment calls for?”, because plenty of people have had reason to question the value of their jobs in the face of atrocities large and small. But emphasizing that your gender is the topic of your writing, as if to belittle it further, is a gross way to magnify your own spinelessness. Plenty of trans writers have had no issues calling out Israel’s massacres in Gaza for what they are.

Anyway, I think Rick Reilly, or some other sports columnist from 25 years ago, showed up to ghostwrite a paragraph?

I am no Arthur Miller. I am, to be honest, not even a Dennis Miller.

And then Boylan ended with the sentimental shallowness of a bereavement card from Hallmark:

I am looking forward to hearing the many conflicting voices of my fellow authors—and readers—in days to come. I am not content for us to be divided, one from another, by a kettle of hawks.

I still hope for a flight of doves.

I’ve spent my entire adult life writing and reading and editing non-fiction, so I know what it looks like when the author is hesitant to reveal the whole truth. These basic metaphors, these irrelevant deflections, and the lack of assertiveness all indicate, to me, that Boylan and her allies at PEN America are scared to meaningfully learn from the passion and the principles of the writers they seek to honor. All of this is so much more frustrating given PEN America’s stated mission to “champion” the freedom to write, to defend creative work and protect writers under threat. Instead, they’re running up the word count to buy time in the absence of an end to the bloodshed in Gaza. Acknowledging their critics would mean destabilizing their own status and risking their comfort within the center-left establishment. But is churning out these crappy statements really what they’d prefer their legacy to be?

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