Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

With guests including Paul Simon and Seth Meyers, PEN America gathered Thursday night for its annual gala, a dressed-up, high-profile event raised even higher because some wondered if it would be held at all.

The literary and human rights organization has faced ongoing criticism over its response to the Israel-Hamas war, with hundreds of writers alleging that PEN showed limited concern over the suffering of Gaza residents and the deaths of Palestinian writers and journalists. PEN has already canceled its spring awards ceremony after dozens of nominees withdrew and its World Voices festival after hundreds signed an open letter saying they wouldn’t participate.


But the gala is the organization’s major annual fundraiser, with more than $2 million already coming in from Thursday’s event, and key supporters from previous years are again contributing. All five major New York publishers — Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster, HarperCollins, Hachette Book Group and Macmillan — are listed as sponsors, along with organizations ranging from Bloomberg and Barnes & Noble to the National Basketball Association and the David Geffen Foundation.

“The test of our partnerships is whether we can find a common cause, not whether we hold every cause in common,” PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a statement.

PEN America is gathering Thursday night for its annual gala, a high-profile event raised even higher because some wondered if it would be held at all.

Honorees Thursday night included Simon, Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour and the Vietnamese dissident Pham Doan Trang. Meyers will serve as emcee.

Authors scheduled to attend included Robert Caro, Candace Bushnell, Jay McInerney and Andrew Solomon, a former PEN president who joined Salman Rushdie, Jennifer Egan and other onetime PEN officials in publishing a letter in April urging “writers to keep faith in the community that we have built together so that PEN America can continue to evolve in ways that serve and elevate the writers as a vital force within society.”

Around 650 were in attendance, about 100 less than 2023, according to PEN. Some who came acknowledged ambivalence about the event.

“I won’t say it didn’t occur to me about whether I should go,” said novelist Dinaw Mengestu, a PEN vice president who has been highly critical of the organization. “But I feel it’s important that we can continue to move forward and try and learn and change.”

Protests against PEN have continued, and writers have publicly clashed. Author-journalist George Packer, a PEN board member, earlier this month condemned what he called the “authoritarian spirit” of PEN critics, alleging in The Atlantic they were pressuring others not to back the organization. Mengestu responded on Instagram by alleging that Packer’s essay “perverts and distorts the legitimate and necessary criticisms against PEN” and trivializes the Gaza war.


Last week more than a dozen writers who withdrew from PEN events held a benefit reading at a church in downtown Manhattan, with proceeds going to We Are Not Numbers, a youth-led Palestinian non-profit in Gaza that advocates for human rights. When the opening speaker, Nancy Kricorian, referred to the PEN cancellations, audience members shouted and clapped. Another speaker, writer-translator Esther Allen, criticized PEN for continuing with the fundraising gala while calling off the awards and World Voices.

“The priorities could not be clearer,” she said.

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