During his opening speech at Tuesday’s PEN Literary Gala, Andrew Solomon said that before he took the job as president of PEN, he told the organization that he had young children and multiple books due. He couldn’t possibly find the time, he argued, though he was assured it would be an easy job that would require only the occasional speech on behalf of the prestigious literary and advocacy group. No big deal.
This turned out not to be the case.
When PEN American Center announced that it would be honoring Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine that was attacked by terrorists on Jan. 7, with the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award, several noteworthy authors including Junot Diaz, Joyce Carol Oates and Rick Moody signed a petition to distance themselves from PEN’s decision, and many previously announced guests decided not to attend the event.
Many of the objecting PEN members found the publication to be needlessly provocative, if not intentionally offensive to French Muslims; the petition that many signed stated that “Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet (Muhammad) must be seen as being intended to cause further humiliation and suffering.”
Solomon, the author of “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity,” immediately acknowledged the “whale in the room,” referring to the giant whale that hung above the gala held at the aquarium exhibit of New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
“We believe in free speech above its contents,” Solomon said. “The suppression of controversial ideas does not result in social justice.” He went on to say that he came of age in the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, during which activists commonly held the saying “silence equals death” as the paramount rule.
At its best, controversy can spark useful discussion; during dinner and breaks between speakers, a screen displayed Twitter remarks that both supported and denounced the organization’s actions. But controversy can also be good for business; the gala raised $1.4 million for the organization, 15% more than its previous record.
Despite the circumstances leading up the event — there were metal detectors at the door and a pronounced police presence — New Yorker cartoon editor Robert Mankoff did his best to bring some levity to the situation by joking that his rented tuxedo was bulletproof, before defending Charlie Hebdo as an equal opportunity button-pusher that seeks only to attack unquestioned dogma. “Not everybody always gets the joke,” he said during his speech, “but if nonbelievers were pressuring everyone not to believe, they would go after atheists.”
The event was attended by authors Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Lily King; Glenn Close also honored playwright Tom Stoppard, who noted in his acceptance speech that writers have been coming under attack since Plato excluded the profession from his blueprint for an ideal society. The night ended with a tribute to jailed Azerbaijani investigative journalist Khadija Ismayilova. Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center, noted that 35 of the 39 people given the Freedom to Write award by PEN were eventually freed from captivity, in part due to the attention the award brings.
On the red carpet, Variety spoke to Charlie Hebdo’s film critic Jean-Baptiste Thoret, who survived the attack and continues to work at the publication, which he noted was barely on the international radar before the attack. “It’s totally normal to have a debate. Maybe the thing is, they think they are celebrating the content of Charlie Hebdo, which is not the case. Maybe they don’t know what Charlie Hebdo is,” he said. “Maybe they didn’t know about it before Jan. 7. You have to be aware of the French tradition of satirists. It’s perfect with me, you can have a different point of view, that’s a principle of democracy and debate.
“You can be offended by the cartoon article. You can be afraid, you can be frightened. You can be very upset by that,” he said. “But you have to maintain freedom of speech, even if the people don’t have the same point of view as you. It’s good to disagree. It’s quite easy to be for freedom of speech when the people think the same thing as you.”
(Pictured: Charlie Hebdo editor-in-chief Gerard Biard at the PEN Gala)