PEN America’s decision to award the French satiricial weekly Charlie Hebdo a “Freedom of Expression Courage Award” continues to cause controversy, as more than two dozen writers—including Joyce Carol Oates, Junot Díaz, and Teju Cole—have signed a letter protesting the award. On the opposite side stands Salman Rushdie, who believes Charlie Hebdo deserves the award, especially in light of the attack on the publication earlier this year, in which 12 editors and cartoonists were murdered.
“It is the role of the satirists in any free society to challenge the powerful and the sacred, pushing boundaries in ways that make expression freer and more robust for us all,” said Suzanne Nossel, PEN Executive Director. “In paying the ultimate price for the exercise of their freedom, and then soldiering on amid devastating loss, Charlie Hebdo deserves to be recognized for its dauntlessness in the face of one of the most noxious assaults on expression in recent memory.”
The dissenters argue in their letter that Charlie Hebdo should not be rewarded for its controversial cartoons, as they ridicule a “section of the French population that is already marginalized, embattled, and victimized.” They continue:
Our concern is that, by bestowing the Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award on Charlie Hebdo, PEN is not simply conveying support for freedom of expression, but also valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.
Francine Prose, one of the initial six dissenters, elaborated on the issue on Facebook, where Salman Rushie and other writers weighed in. “Why is it so difficult for people to make fine distinctions? The writers opposing the PEN award support free speech, free expression, and stand fully behind Charlie Hebdo’s right to publish whatever they want without being censored, and of course without the use of violence to enforce their silence,” Prose writes.
Provocation is simply not the same as heroism. I do hope that the audience at the PEN gala will be shown some of the cruder and more racist cartoons that CH publishes, so they will know what they are applauding and honoring. I’m disheartened by the usually sensible intelligent Salman Rushie’s readiness to call us ‘fellow travelers’ who are encouraging Islamist jihadism, and also to label us, on Twitter, as ‘six pussies.’ I can only assume he meant our feline dignity and was not implying that we are behaving like people who have vaginas. It would be sad to think that a writers organization cannot discuss free speech without resorting to political accusations and sexual insult.
Francine: you know very well, or you should, that the word “pussies” was in a tweet to which I was replying, and I have since stated that I shouldn’t have reused it in my reply. But “fellow travelers”, yes. No question of that. As for “fine distinctions,” here’s what I see. Our fellow artists were murdered for their ideas and you won’t stand up for them. I’m very sorry to see that. I think you’ll find the vast majority of the PEN membership will be sorry, too.
Meanwhile, Joyce Carol Oates has taken to her preferred platform, Twitter, to offer a deeper explanation of her perspective:
The PEN Literary Gala will be held on Tuesday, May 5, at the Museum of Natural History in New York City.