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PEN President Andrew Solomon on Charlie Hebdo

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By Boris Kachka

Tomorrow’s PEN literary gala, held under the Museum of Natural History’s luminescent whale, may well be the most interesting in the free-speech organization’s nearly century-long history. Little more than a week ago, six “table hosts” withdrew from the gala over PEN America’s plan to bestow its Freedom of Expression Courage Award to Charlie Hebdo, the Muhammad-mocking French newspaper whose staff members were massacred by extremists in January. Last Wednesday, we sat down in PEN’s airy but functional offices with its new president, the writer Andrew Solomon, to get his perspective. Just two hours before we met, an email petition had been released, bearing the signatures of 35 PEN members vowing to “disassociate” themselves from the decision. Since then, that list has grown past 200; PEN has found replacement hosts (including Neil Gaiman and Art Spiegelman); and Solomon and PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel have published an op-ed defending the award in the New York Times.

You only became the president of PEN in March. Has it been turning out as you’d envisioned it?

When they persuaded me to join, they said it was really a very straightforward and undemanding job.

The last week has been challenging in ways that were not much aligned with how I imagined the job. Joel Conarroe, a former president of PEN, just wrote to me and said, “I remember herding cats. I hope you’re finding it easier than I did.” But I feel like part of the point is not to herd everyone, it’s to hear everyone’s points of view and expose them.

That doesn’t mean you’re happy with how things have gone, does it?

It seemed very rapidly to escalate in a way that I don’t think has served anyone’s interests. The implication has been that it’s somehow an us-against-them situation — I don’t think that is what’s going on. Six people who are PEN members decided that they preferred to not be hosts. None of them said, “We hate PEN and want nothing to do with you.”

But the petition changes the picture, doesn’t it?

It was odd that it came from a made-up email address. There’s a sense through all of this of not quite being able to pin down who is saying or doing what. And we have tried to be as transparent as we can.

(To read the complete interview, please visit Vulture.)