PEN American Center Literary Gala Celebrates Writers

Anna Wintour and Beyoncé lured the eyes of the fashion world to the shimmering Costume Institute gala at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but they did not hold exclusive rights to the society spectacle that unfolded Monday night along the perimeter of Manhattan’s common backyard.

Across Central Park, a more cerebral and, in some cases, tenured brand of celebrity — Toni Morrison, Martin Amis, Calvin Trillin — were walking the red carpet at the annual PEN American Center Literary Gala. The black-tie affair, held at the American Museum of Natural History, was the social event of the season for the city’s belletrists, and its organizers were giving nothing away in terms of cachet to their high-wattage rivals at the Met.

“It’s the literati and the glitterati, on dueling sides of the park,” said Suzanne Nossel, the PEN American Center’s executive director.

The event had a more demure feel than the Met ball did. As the silver-haired literary titans sipped chardonnay beneath the bones of a barosaurus in the Theodore Roosevelt Rotunda, the metaphors came almost too easily — this was, after all, a room full of writers.

“Let’s face it, the novel is supposed be extinct, so actually this is probably as good a place to host it as any,” said Philip Kerr, the Scottish-born writer, peering up at the soaring skeleton from the Late Jurassic period during the cocktail reception.

Even so, the event was anything but fusty in spirit. This year, the 93-year-old organization, dedicated to defend free speech around the world, made a conspicuous display of embracing the 21st century, handing out a first Digital Freedom Award to Dick Costolo, the chief executive of Twitter, as well as honoring two 20-something members of Pussy Riot, the Russian feminist punk-rock protest band that became a cause célèbre in 2012.

It was a PEN gala for a new age, said Gay Talese, a longtime attendee. “It used to be a literary tea party that had an annual dinner attended by about 38 reclusive people,” said Mr. Talese, 82. “Now, it’s Pussy Riot. They’re the new scholars.”

Traditionalists, particularly novelists who typically think of a 90-page opening chapter as throat-clearing, may have found it odd that this venerable writers’ organization was honoring a Silicon Valley executive who encourages works of 140 characters or less.

But the literary world has changed, and so has literary activism, said Salman Rushdie, the Indian-born novelist who is no stranger to persecution or to Twitter (he has 702,000 followers).

“There is no question that Twitter is a way around censorship,” said Mr. Rushdie, who was recognized that night on the 10th anniversary of his founding of the PEN World Voices festival. “Right now, you see this increasingly autocratic government in Turkey, and one of the things it wants to do is ban Twitter, because it knows that Twitter is the opposite of autocracy.”

After cocktails, some 650 guests retreated to the soaring Milstein hall for dinner. Names familiar from the spines of tomes published long before the age of Kindle (James Salter, Robert Caro) huddled under the 94-foot replica of a blue whale, and dined on roast chicken and polenta, alongside the relative young turks of letters (the first couple of Brooklyn literature, Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss, were there, as was Beau Willimon, the playwright and “House of Cards” creator).

At the podium, Peter Godwin, the PEN American Center’s president, picked up the electronic-media theme, informing the crowd that nearly 50 percent of the persecuted writers that PEN works with are in trouble because of some form of digital communication — a blog post, a video, a tweet. “In the 21st century, free expression is as threatened — if not more so — online as off,” he said.

All the chatter about social media turned out to be more than just talk. Late in the evening, Jewher Ilham, the daughter of the Chinese scholar Ilham Tohti, a member of the Uighur ethnic minority who is imprisoned on charges of separatism, called for the power brokers in attendance to pause to tweet photos of themselves holding small paper signs emblazoned with the message “#FreeIlham” that had been left at the tables. Throughout the room, forks were dropped and iPhones whipped out.

Despite such displays of digital activism, no one in the room was ready to declare books passé, least of all the feisty Russian rockers, who talked about how literature sustained them during confinement.

“Books are the one thing you have in prison,” said Pussy Riot’s Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, 24, who wore a sharp black miniskirt ensemble. “Books, and hope.”