Three Letters: JE NE SUIS PAS VOUS, ET VOUS N’ÊTES PAS MOI. Laissons là.

Francine Prose is among the signors of a letter protesting the Charlie Hebdo PEN award.

Francine Prose is among the signors of a letter protesting the Charlie Hebdo PEN award.DAVID SHANKBONE 

The latest tormenta in a petrie dish here is the refusal, or whatever one calls it, of several members of PEN Club to host a table at one of those deadly ghoulish literary award ceremonies, because Charlie Hebdo was being given some courage award or whatever. Francine Prose, Deborah Eisenberg, and some other writers felt such an award would endorse Islamophobia, so-called. It’s interesting to me, vaguely, that these writers feel that the religious pieties they impute to an absurdly undifferentiated French Muslim population, or an even more broadly homogenized population of Muslims worldwide, have to be considered and deferred to in the awarding of honors or medals or the National Merit Badge in support of freedom of speech. The piling-on against the dissenting writers in the press has been a little much, too, though that is a predictable wolf pack reaction these writers seem to have counted on: the journalists have also predictably accepted and regurgitated the notion that these particular writers are as “eminent” and “important” as their publicists tirelessly asseverate.

Well. The non-attendees think the way they think and the PEN Club thinks the way it thinks. So what? (I’ve noticed, however, parenthetically, that the people who compare Charlie Hebdo to neo-Nazis in Skokie, or racists in general, base this assertion entirely on CH’s drawn caricatures, ignoring the dialogue bubbles and other words featured in the cartoons they appear in, or the captions accompanying them. This willful blindness to written language attached to pictures seems strange, coming from a bunch of writers. The French in CH’s cartoons is not complicated, and often drastically alters the meaning the image would transmit by itself. So what is being valorized by Prose, Eisenberg, et al. is a proscription on blasphemy: not the grotesque depiction of Mohammed, but any depiction of Mohammed whatsoever.)

Islamophobia is a very difficult term to parse. It implies a reflexive denigration of Muslims, and having known many completely secular Muslims in my life, as well as many others more engaged with their religion but even more wary of Islamic fanaticism than non-Muslims, I don’t think an aversion to egregious actions people take in the name of religion or even an aversion to the religion itself can be considered “Islamophobic”–it might just be a case of an endangered-feeling conviction of ‘live and let live’–though obviously it depends on how the aversion gets expressed. I can see the other side of this, if only because human beings will use any pretext to bash each other’s brains in, they don’t need a religion, only a unifying idea that will organize them into a mob.

I’m not sure, though, if there are so very many religions around that a writer or cartoonist has to be wary of lampooning for fear of being gunned down by the religion’s followers, though I am not a student of contemporary religion and for all I know there may be legions of such religions. Making fun of Scientology has complicated the lives of many people in dire ways, though the Church of L. Ron Hubbard seem to have stopped well short of beheadings, public incinerations, and the tossing of homosexuals from the rooftops of various tall buildings, subsequently stoning them to death if they survive the fall.

In any case, the “controversy” seems a rather baroque way of sparing oneself the tedium of hosting a table at a PEN dinner, but I completely understand the wish to avoid doing so at any cost, and would probably have done the same, on some even flimsier pretext. The last such literary swoonfest I attended was horrible in every imaginable way. The art world looks like a bacchanal in comparison, at least the people are attractive…I was parked at a table purchased by a family whose fortune derived from some sort of toilet fixture, and I am not making this up. The MC asked each of the 50 table hosts to stand when their illustrious names were called. He called 49. Guess who he didn’t announce. My impulse was to quietly leave, but I was with my then-agent, a glamorous woman, who had really done herself up like Angie Dickinsen for the occasion, and who pushed me back in my chair, then stormed up to the stage and informed the MC or Roastmaster–who then of course said they’d forgotten someone, whereupon I was expected to stand when my name was called, which I did, like an idiot, thinking it was absolutely par for the course vis-a-vis the way I’ve been received in posh literary circles most of my writing life. I’m with Groucho, really. I think Erik Satie was the one who said, “It’s not enough to refuse the Legion of Honor, the important thing is to never have deserved it.”


Junot Diaz is another signer of the letter.


I begin to imagine this PEN/Charlie Hebdo “controversy” was cooked up by PEN itself to stir some otherwise missing excitement about its activities. The content of the whole thing is zero; there is usually less fuss made about who gets the Nobel Prize. The real point of it begins to look like the endless repetition in print of the same four or five proper names, most of whom owe their entire careers to essentialist posturing and/or implacable, relentless networking. I only mention this because they’ve made the “quality” of Charlie Hebdo part of the alleged issue, and some of these writers are really in no position to pass qualitative judgments on anybody’s work, being themselves embarrassingly awful. They’re clumsily alert to nuance vis-a-vis Islamophobia, entirely deaf to it vis-a-vis colloquial French, and though I am on no side of this at all, some of the signatories of this protest letter are predictably Jacobin, like Junot Diaz, while others would be perfectly at home in the Soviet Writer’s Union of yesteryear. Conversely you have the presiding neoconservative echelon at PEN, which would be perfectly at home in the basement of the CIA, and Salman Rushdie, who owes his eminence to Islamofascism, and has worked that into the ground–as one of his ex-wives remarked, “the great fallacy he committed was to think he was the issue, instead of free speech or racism.” No, the best place to be in all this is nowhere.

I feel bad for “the filler”–all those writers who signed the letter but belong to the “30 others” or “150 others” or however many others whose names aren’t getting the star treatment that the original five (or is it six?) signatories are, in all the media stories about this. Those “others” don’t even get to be commissars! Even so!! Throw them in a stewpot, they’ll stand up and salt themselves!!!


I think this is an age of mobs, hardly the first such age, an age of “flash mobs,” of desperately isolated modern people who can only connect with their own existence and with each other by joining mobs, or organizing mobs, more often virtual mobs than real ones, mobs that can be steered in any direction whatsoever, and I was really perplexed by the whole “Je Suis Charlie Hebdo” phenomenon, especially when some of the most disgusting political figures in the world pushed to the front of the line in that massive Paris demonstration; it’s the problem of mobs that whatever issues they’re mobilized around get instantly stripped of real nuances, which are replaced by the bad thinking of demagogues. Ms. Prose poses the question, “Why can’t people make fine distinctions?” while herself making none whatsoever, instead collapsing very divergent problems involving race, poverty, religious fanaticism, social mores, politics, free speech, and violence into one vapid and muddily blended “issue.”

But further to all this, what that Argentine director was saying recently about solemnity–for example, some “political philosopher” in Al Jazeera opines that:

“I stand with the 35 authors who opted out of the PEN gala, choosing a literary heroism that emphasizes creating what is good rather than focusing only on the misfortune of being victimized by evil. PEN should instead fight for writers who have been unduly harassed and subjected to scrutiny and surveillance for differing with popular sentiments.”

The hypocrisy of this language is absolutely breathtaking. The “literary heroism” of these authors (oh please), “creating what is good” (according to whom?)–“the misfortune of being victimized by evil”??? How about being killed by it??? For blasphemy??? Even “I stand with” is the kind of locution that suggests the author is in dire need of an enema. Exactly what “popular sentiments” did Charlie Hebdo ever endorse? But the actual content of Charlie Hebdo isn’t really of any concern to these people who “stand with” the kind of “literary heroism” they prefer to “choose”–CH is vulgar and adolescent in its scrambling for any joke, just like Private Eye, and people who like to think of themselves as the guardians of other people’s sensitivities can easily seize on humor of any kind as an occasion for outrage.

But for me the key word here is “should”, this prissy prescriptive “should,” other people “should” do this, PEN “should” do that–and this is all utter balls, really. Nobody “opted out of the PEN gala,” a handful of writers made a loud public issue out of cancelling their table host reservations and solicited a lot of other writers, some of whom weren’t even planning to attend the dinner, to sign a protest letter. (I know one person whose name is on it who didn’t even agree to sign it. He doesn’t belong to PEN, either.) And now it’s gone viral, with every opportunist barnacle chiming in in support of one side or the other, not because their opinion about it makes one iota of difference in the real world or “creates what is good,” but because their byline gets into Al Jazeera or wherever. As a great man (Mel Brooks) once said, Fuck ’em all except for Cave 86.

I am obviously woolgathering because I’m leaving Tuesday (for a Muslim country, I’ll just add) and am mentally already out the door. I referred earlier to someone I fell immediately in love with, watching a press conference he had at Cannes on YouTube, Damian Szifron, who directed “Wild Tales”–an immensely attractive, brilliantly articulate person. He was explaining that he didn’t want to approach the material of “Wild Tales” with any sort of solemnity, and then, as a completely throwaway line, said, “Solemnity always has something hypocritical about it”–it took my breath away. It was one of those out of nowhere statements that you instantly recognize is not only true but consistently true. What bothered me from the jump when I read about this PEN dinner was precisely the hortatory, solemn, Vichy-brained tone of pronouncements issued by the original non-diners, none of whom has ever distinguished her or himself for any sort of lucid political thought, or exhibited any discernible sense of humor, and none of whom could become prominent writers outside a literary system that has a Politburo enforcing its tastes and received ideas, which our literary world certainly is; moreover sniffily dismissing Charlie Hebdo as beneath the level of their sort of Quality–ridiculous, though I have no use for sanctimonious organizations like PEN, which exist to enable exactly such people to stake egregiously inflated claims of literary importance for themselves by way of committee chairmanships, lethally boring dinner parties, and prominent placement in PEN’s annual literary festivals. I don’t know if you remember a publication from the ’60s that appeared, “100 Writers Speak Out About the Vietnam War”–well, an actual issue, unlike the matter at hand, yet the only memorable statement this featured was from Samuel Beckett, who simply wrote, “I’m against it. It should stop.”

What’s bewildering about this affair is not so much the positions people have taken but the triviality of the affair itself. People who apply first principles to trivia are always demagogical, and nothing could be more trivial than an awards dinner of PEN, however much its presidents past and present have tried, with only occasional success, to make this organization matter. It has always been an ego-driven bureaucracy. At one time it did have some acute relevance because in certain countries, mainly those of the old Soviet Union, a PEN protest about jailed writers and censorship was embarrassing to the people in power, and sometimes helped secure people’s release from prison. Well, a lot of that went out the window when Norman Mailer sprang Jack Henry Abbott from jail, and Mailer further nailed PEN’s coffin shut by inviting George Schultz to be a keynote speaker at one of these festschrifts. And after the Soviet Union collapsed, forget it. Russia and the Eastern Bloc countries always held literature in an exalted place, even Stalin was afraid of writers; Putin isn’t afraid of anybody. No one in power today, anywhere in the world, gives a flying fuck about “cultural credibility,” or how they’re perceived by the literary world, though this PEN protest has generated a lot of fatuous approval from various dubious quarters, and on the other side of it are people like Rushdie, whose delusions of grandeur are every bit as ludicrous as those of the writers on the other side, and the executive director of PEN, whose history with the State Department raises the same kind of perplexity that the funding of Encounter did in the 1950s. I thought this story would blow over in a day or two but it seems to have only gathered steam…

There isn’t any side to take, and who cares, in the end. Still, it’s funny.

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.

  • Issues