2017 Literary Gala: Andrew Solomon
PEN America President Andrew Solomon delivered the following remarks at the 2017 PEN Literary Gala.
I want to welcome you all to PEN America’s largest and most successful gala ever. In 2013 this gala raised $1 million for the first time. Tonight, thanks to all of you here, we have raised more than $1.945 million to defend freedom of expression and to celebrate literature.
I would like to thank our remarkable Gala Committee for its outstanding work under the inspired leadership of Roxanne Donovan, Margaret Munzer Loeb, and Sean Kelly. We are also deeply grateful to all the writers in the room, who represent the best and brightest in American letters. If you are a writer, please stand.
I salute the generous commitment of our major award benefactors: Annette Tapert and Joe Allen, Toni and James Goodale, and Pam and Peter Barbey.
We are living at a time of unprecedented attacks on freedom of expression in the United States. The truth is routinely denied by the highest officials of our government, and untruths are proclaimed as if they were authentic, and insistently repeated until they are widely believed. The overall intent is to generate a chaos in which truth grows so befogged that people get tired of looking for it. This planned chaos is the antithesis of expansive freedom; it is a curling inward, a giving up.
We have some of the world’s greatest writers of fiction here tonight, and fiction is sometimes held to be the opposite of reality. But great fiction, no matter how fantastical, conveys the truth; there can be no conflation of such literary artistry and the bombardments of double-talk that have polluted our national discourse. Fact and fiction are two strands of literature, but veracity is the nexus of brilliance in all writing, and combatting mendacity is not the same as literalism. The freedom to write—PEN’s tagline—pertains to the boundless complexity of truth, not to “alternative facts.”
No truth can be safely held to be self-evident; every one is subject to distortion. This is not the province of conservatives or liberals, of the left wing or the right, but of all those who believe in the integrity and power of language. The great nineteenth-century naturalist Alexander von Humboldt said, “There is no worldview so dangerous as the worldview of those who have not viewed the world.” It is the role of writers to ensure that even those who do not or cannot travel can nonetheless avail themselves of the planet’s astonishing range of voices and attitudes. And it is our moral obligation to assert that patriotism is not the same as nationalism—that you can love the United States profoundly without bullying or condescending to the world.
Since last November’s election, at least 19 states have introduced measures that would criminalize peaceful protest. In North Dakota, some legislators are pushing a bill that would allow motorists to run over and kill agitators, as long as any such crash could be described as accidental. A bill pending in Virginia would dramatically increase punishment for people who “unlawfully” assembled after “having been lawfully warned to disperse.” United Nations experts warn that these bills represent an “alarming and undemocratic” trend, noting that “one person’s decision to resort to violence does not strip other protesters of their right to freedom of peaceful assembly.”
Literature has kept the idea of freedom alive in societies where freedom is forcibly annihilated. If the truth can remain vitalized, it can be shouted from the rooftops when the right moment arrives. We are gathered in this room to resist every attempt to disenfranchise the truth as an irrelevance. “Words are no deeds,” says Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. But when the national discourse is decaying and the body politic is in danger of atrophy, I would contend otherwise. At PEN, we defend words as deeds of conviction, deeds of hope, deeds of mutual respect and incitement to peace. Of course, they can also be deeds of cruelty, tyranny, and incitement to violence. It is possible to believe in both civility and absolute freedom of speech. But language and truth need to be entwined: the suppleness of moral understanding depends on the pliability of words.
We will hear shortly about tonight’s first two honorees: the catalytic Women’s March and the unbending Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov. I would like to say to our Literary Service Award winner, Stephen Sondheim, that like others in this room, I would venture, I have done some of my best writing while listening to your music and lyrics over and over again, because they so brilliantly reveal the delicate tracework of the human heart, impose so much beauty on the pain of intimacy. Though we invited you for this award well before November, it’s hard not to reflect now on the pure genius of your contention that the clowns need not be sent in when they’re already here.
The first award presented tonight is the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award. The award is given to a publisher outside the United States who has demonstrated exceptional bravery, and this year goes to Gui Minhai of Hong Kong. We are delighted that his daughter Angele Gui, a tireless advocate for her father’s freedom, is here with us tonight.
And now please join me in welcoming John Sargent, CEO of Macmillan and PEN America’s 2017 Publisher Honoree. John is the longest-serving officer of the Association of American Publishers, where over 8 years he negotiated with both Google and the Author’s Guild helping to define the parameters of digital use of copyrighted materials. As a children’s book author, and former president of the Children’s Book Division of Simon & Schuster, he knows that the right to publish benefits readers of all ages. John is also a true humanitarian, serving as a leader of the Ocean Conservancy and devoting his time and tireless energy to some of our city’s least privileged citizens through New York foster care agency Graham Windham. PEN America honors the commitment of John Sargent and Macmillan to the intellectual property rights of publishers and writers, to the imperative of books and literature, and to the defense of the mind. We are tremendously grateful for the role that he and the entire team at Macmillan have played in making tonight a success.