Early this week, PEN American Center named six new table hosts for its annual dinner on Tuesday, substituting for the six who opted out to protest the organization’s decision to present its “freedom of expression courage award” to the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Nonetheless, an additional 198 writers have joined the initial six dissenters, Peter Carey, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, and Taiye Selasi. The 204 writers (so far) no doubt understand that their vocation depends on the First Amendment. Of course they believe in freedom of speech, and it’s awful that 12 people were executed in Paris in January, but from their perspective that’s no reason to celebrate a bunch of cartoonists and writers who’ve made a habit of picking on a dispossessed minority still suffering the depredations of European colonialism.
It’s true, as critics of the PEN dissidents charge, that the letter and subsequent comments show that they don’t know much about the magazine itself—for instance, that it makes fun of sports more often than it does of Islam. Nor do they understand the role Charlie Hebdo plays in Parisian cultural life, as a pillar of the institutionalized nostalgia for May 1968. It’s not even clear how many of the PEN dissidents are able to read the left-wing French weekly.
But their gesture in reality isn’t about Charlie Hebdo or Islamist terror—rather, it’s about something much closer to home. It’s about literary politics: professional networks and advancement, ambition, jobs, money, and prestige—in other words, the sociological exigencies that are part of any industry, in this case, the American literary establishment.
It’s also about real politics and how the progressive camp in the Democratic party is advancing against the party’s liberal camp. The progressives have a huge advantage since their standard-bearer is the president of the United States.
Presumably, there were even more reasons for signing the letter than there are writers who signed it. The one all 204 share, both the name writers and the most obscure, is the desire to be relevant. It takes a long time to write a book, even a bad one, and it’s especially hard on novelists. If you’re a short story writer or poet, you probably publish a few pieces a year in between books, which signals to colleagues (agents, editors, and publishers as well as other writers) that you’re still grinding away. It’s much tougher if you’re a novelist and years away from delivering a manuscript—and hundreds or thousands of miles away from the New York publishing scene. Signing a protest letter reminds everyone you’re still out there, even if it’s somewhere in the Midwest teaching undergrads. I am sure I am not the only one surprised to learn that the author of Endless Love is still writing books—in the horror genre, no less.
Sure, there are some big names who signed the letter, like Russell Banks and Janet Malcolm, but notably absent are big-name writers who not only get large advances but also, and more importantly, earn lots of money for their publishers. Jeffrey Eugenides, for instance, isn’t among the PEN insurgents, nor is Donna Tartt or Jonathan Franzen. It is their success that helps convince publishing’s corporate owners that while potboilers and self-help books cover the rent, literature also sometimes pays off. In other words, the big-name writers who are not on the list make possible the careers of the big-name writers who are. Presumably the latter are consoled that while the former may earn real money, they have real politics. The letter then is a passage in a story about a family that like all families is scarred by jealousy and resentment.