Roundup on PEN and Charlie Hebo


Justin Smith on Charlie Hebdo and Literature:

Honestly, people who have signed the PEN letter are openly admitting that they have never even looked at Charlie Hebdo, and even that they would not be in a position to understand the French if they were to look it. I can accept that your overall judgment of it might, after thorough consideration, be negative (just like you might not like Lolita, Gargantua, Monty Python…), but that is just patently not what is happening here. As I've written elsewhere, it seems to me that Charlie Hebdo has been Justine Sacco'd in the Anglosphere: summarily judged, and then subject to a campaign of ruthless denunciation. Except that Charlie Hebdo is not a Tweet, but a decades-long collaborative endeavor, and those of us in the part of the world that is still capable of interpreting texts and images in a nuanced way are left scratching our heads when we see the unreflective, summary judgment passed on such a complicated body of work –often misfiring, but often unquestionably courageous and unquestionably funny– as if it were some dumb Tweet or other source of ephemeral online outrage.

An audio interview with Amitava Kumar over at The Takeaway:

Here's an excerpt from a letter of support he wrote to PEN:

“This issue has nothing to do with an oppressed and disadvantaged minority. It has everything to do with the battle against fanatical Islam, which is highly organised, well funded, and which seeks to terrify us all, Muslims as well as non-Muslims, into a cowed silence.”

Writer, journalist, and Vassar College Professor Amitava Kumar is among the 145 signatories of that letter denouncing PEN's decision to honor Charlie Hebdo. Author of the forthcoming book of essays titled “Lunch With a Bigot,” Kumar tells The Takeaway why he is protesting this award.

Keith Gessen in n+1:

The response to arguments like Williams’s have been that if only he understood the context of the cartoons, he would realize that they were meant to be a mockery of racism. But Williams was writing from the French context. It was precisely the French context that made Williams feel like he was being insulted and left out.

I can imagine another objection being raised here: Williams’s subjective experience of the cartoon is not in doubt, but actually he is projecting an American standard, his own American experience, onto a French work. To an American eye, the cartoon of the black justice minister as a monkey is plainly offensive. To a French one, it is something else.

For the sake of this debate, I am willing to accept this argument, as well as the assurances of numerous French commentators that, in fact, Charlie Hebdo in the French context was progressive and anti-racist.

But the PEN Gala is not taking place in France. It is taking place in Manhattan

Christopher Beha in Harper's:

Tomorrow night at the PEN America Center’s annual gala in New York City, the organization will honor the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo with its Freedom of Expression Courage Award. As has been widely reported, several PEN members, including Francine Prose, Peter Carey, Rachel Kushner, and Michael Ondaatje, have withdrawn from the gala and dozens more have signed an open letter protesting the decision to honor the magazine, whose pages over the years have included crude images of the prophet Mohammed and other material that many readers have found offensive. The letter draws a distinction “between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable, and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” This is fair enough, so far as it goes. Most PEN members would not hesitate to condemn yesterday’s armed attack on an anti-Islamic art event in Texas. At the same time, I doubt that PEN would seriously consider giving an award to Pamela Geller, the Islamophobic agitator who organized the event.

So it’s a legitimate distinction, but one that strikes me as largely irrelevant in this case, and not just because Charlie Hebdo isn’t an Islamophobic hate group. While the protests have prompted much analysis of Charlie Hebdo’s work and its place within a larger tradition of French satire and anti-clericalism, few of the protestors who have spoken in any detail on the matter have actually suggested that the content of Charlie Hebdo’s work is the primary reason for their objections.

Katha Pollitt in The Nation:

The six writers are circulating a letter to PEN members, which many great and famous writers are signing: Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Diaz, Lorrie Moore. It seems to me these writers must be awfully sure that they will never fall afoul of either fanaticism or well-meaning liberalism. “There is a critical difference between staunchly supporting expression that violates the acceptable,” it argues, “and enthusiastically rewarding such expression.” Well, sure, but excuse me: violates the acceptable? The acceptable what? And don’t we need writing and artwork that pushes the boundary of what the acceptable is? “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom,” as Blake put it.

Norman Mailer, former president of PEN, had all sorts of reprehensible, ignorant and pigheaded views. When it came to politics, he was like a drunken uncle banging the table at Thanksgiving. But he pushed the boundaries back for every writer. And much as I dislike the vast bulk of his writing and his repulsive ideas about women—talk about punching down—if PEN gave him an award, I would just live with it.