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.
The satirical moment brought some levity to an evening of arguments in defense of global free speech and press freedom. Honorees included Zadie Smith, who delivered a clarifying meditation on the definition of literary service; Audible founder and chairman Don Katz; teen activist Jack Petocz; and imprisoned Ukrainian journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, whose wife, Kateryna, and seven-year-old daughter, Stephania, accepted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on his behalf. Presenters included actress Ruth Negga, Senator Cory Booker, actor Michael Douglas, actor Asia Kate Dillon, PEN America president Ayad Akhtar, and journalist Faith Salie, 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 Talese 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.”
Another longtime attendee of the gala is Candace Bushnell, who was looking forward to “the speeches, because it’s writers, and most of them are brilliant,” she said. During cocktail hour, she carried a Catcher in the Rye book clutch by Olympia Le-Tan as a nod to the bildungsroman’s history of bannings. “I remember carrying around the actual book to parties in the late ’80s,” she said. “My publisher, [Grove Atlantic president] Morgan Entrekin, saw me and he was like, ‘Candace, do you remember you were carrying around Catcher in the Rye that night when we went to like 12 clubs?’ I haven’t seen him yet, but he probably won’t remember.” (Her and Entrekin’s table seems to have been the hardest-partying one; Jay McInerney reportedly brought 10 bottles of his own wine, plus caviar to share.)
Beowulf Sheehan—who has become known as the literary photographer—walked around snapping photographs of industry mainstays such as Jenny Jackson of Knopf; Lauren Wein of Avid Reader Press; John Lippman, the CEO of Book of the Month; Kathleen Kingsbury of The New York Times; and opinion columnist Pamela Paul. “I’m principally a portrait photographer, but this is not portraiture, per se,” he said, but rather documentation of “those who are doing wonderful things, not only in the literary community, but for society at large.”
Zadie Smith said she sees the gala as a “wake-up call,” though, she added, “how awake do people stay?” She first attended as a younger writer during a year when a similarly “scabrous, slightly bad-behaved, funny writer” received the Freedom to Write Award. “[He was] dealing with something I couldn’t imagine. That kind of cross-world recognition is what mattered to me.”
There were some faces of the new guard too. The Drift editors Kiara Barrow and Rebecca Panovka were present, having just last week closed their seventh issue. Author and publisher Zibby Owens was excited to meet honoree Jack Petocz, the teen activist who in March helped organize a statewide student walkout against Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill. “He’s actually making a difference,” she said. “There’s hope in the next generation.” Speaking of Gen Z: On the balcony, PEN America program manager Niko Perez helmed a table of Teens for Press Freedom organizers, including cofounders Charlotte Hampton and Isabel Tribe. They launched the organization in 2020 “to tackle how young people consume information on social media, and to discuss echo chambers in American politics and how they’re going to affect the future of democracy,” Hampton said.
Lately, Gessen has been talking about the future of democracy on a daily basis. “I was just saying that if I weren’t writing about the war, I’d be writing about the reinvention of totalitarianism,” they said. “We just have to ring all the bells and blow all the sirens and say, ‘This country is reinventing totalitarianism right now on a state-by-state basis. This is how it happens.’”
“I can’t remember a time in my whole life that [free speech] has been more crucial,” Michael Douglas said at the evening’s close, as he exited through the hall of dioramas. “It’s just hard to conceive this fact about books being banned…very bizarre times.”
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