An Evening Spent Contemplating “Literary Service”: Inside the PEN America Literary Gala

Roughly two hours into the PEN America Literary Gala on Monday night, projector screens implored roughly 650 guests to return to their seats beneath the 94-foot, 21,000-pound blue whale model suspended in the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life. It was time for a special presentation. Earlier in the evening, there had been whispers of a “news-making” video clip related to the recent wave of book banning (or maybe book burning), but no one quite knew what to expect. What followed was a promotional clip announcing the Sotheby’s auction of an “unburnable” copy of The Handmaid’s Tale printed on fire-resistant paper with a flame-retardant cover. To confirm as much, in the clip, Margaret Atwood herself tries unsuccessfully to set the book ablaze.

“My first time with a flamethrower!” the 82-year-old author tweeted.

By Beowulf Sheehan and Silvia Saponaro/PEN America.

The satirical moment brought some levity to an evening of arguments in defense of global free speech and press freedom. Honors included Zadi Smith, who delivered a clarifying meditation on the definition of literary service; Audible founder and chairman Don Katz; teen activist Jack Petocz; and impressed Ukrainian journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, whose wife, katherine, and seven-year-old daughter, Stephanie, accepted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on his behalf. Presenters included actress Ruth Nega, Senator CoryBooker, actor MichaelDouglas, actor Asia Kate Dillon, PEN America president Ayad Akhtar, and journalist Faith Salee, who hosted the evening, which raised $2.6 million.

“A lot of thought goes into choosing the honorees and the speakers, because it matters a lot who’s up there and what they say,” PEN America vice president masha gessen told Vanity Fair during cocktail hour. The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award is especially weighty. “It’s always a horrible choice, because there are all of these people you’re not choosing. But it’s also meaningful,” Gessen said. “The track record, for the most part, proves that it’s very effective. Most people who have been honored by PEN were released within a fairly short time, because the world is watching.”

In December 2021, the Committee to Protect Journalists released a report numbering imprisoned journalists at 293, an all-time global high. “The biggest difference that anybody outside the actual prison can make—for the fate of somebody who’s in prison—is to make them visible to the light, make them visible to the world, and to signal that the world is watching,” Gessen added .

Many writers in attendance are politically active on the national or global stage, including Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Jennifer Finney Boylan, and Hari Kunzru. Pachinko author Min Jin Lee recently represented the United States in the delegation to the inauguration of South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol. “I didn’t agree with everything in the new administration, and yet, I feel very strongly about the friendship between the two countries,” Lee said. “Sometimes you have strong alliances, and you can have disagreements. Especially right now, it’s really important to say that we can have nuance.”

When it comes to representation, Lee said, visibility, accuracy, and morality are more important than diversity for the sake of optics. “I don’t think representation is everything,” Lee said. “Representation without ethics can be nothing short of craven.” (she tweeted a similar sentiment this morning.)

Nearby, gay tales stood close to the bar sipping a gin martini. “I’ll see if I could say something that’s not stupid. Ask me a question and try to clean it up,” Talese said. “I’ve been a member of PEN since the 1960s or 1970s. I’m a really old-timer. I’m 90 years old. I’m probably the oldest writer here. At least the oldest writer to drink martinis.” He believes there is less freedom to write now than when he was 50 years old, in 1982. “The sensitivity of people has become so severely felt that they cannot stand anything that they don’t want to hear,” he said. “They become intolerant.”

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