The 48th Congress of International PEN, the global writers’ organization dedicated to spreading the word and defending its servants, was quite a show. Norman Mailer, president of PEN American Center back then, used all his powers of persuasion and charm to raise the funds that brought more than fifty of the world’s leading writers to Manhattan to debate, with almost one hundred of America’s finest, the exalted theme of “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.”

As one of the younger participants I was more than a little awestruck. Joseph Brodsky, Günter Grass, Amos Oz, Wole Soyinka, Mario Vargas Llosa, Saul Bellow, Raymond Carver, E. L. Doctorow, Toni Morrison, Edward Said, William Styron, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mailer himself were some of the big names reading their work and arguing away. The atmosphere was electric from the start. Much to the chagrin of PEN members, Mailer had invited Secretary of State George Shultz to speak at the opening ceremony, at the New York Public Library. This prompted protest by the South African writers Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee, and Sipho Sepamla, who accused Shultz of supporting apartheid. Other writers, including E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick, and John Irving, also disapproved of Shultz’s presence, protesting that writers were being set up “as a forum for the Reagan Administration,” as Doctorow put it.

Many at the congress demanded to know why there were so few women on the panels. Susan Sontag and Nadine Gordimer, both panelists, did not join the revolt. It was Sontag who came up with the argument that “literature is not an equal-opportunity employer.” This remark did not improve the protesters’ mood. Nor, I suspect, did my own intervention—I pointed out that while there were, after all, several women on the various panels, I was the sole representative of South Asia, which was to say, of one sixth of the human race. And I remember being dragged into a heavyweight prize fight between Saul Bellow and Günter Grass. After Bellow made a speech containing a familiar Bellovian riff about how the success of American materialism had damaged the spiritual life of Americans, Grass rose to point out that many people routinely fell through the holes in the American dream, and offered to show Bellow some real American poverty in, for example, the South Bronx. Bellow, irritated, spoke sharply in return, and when Grass returned to his seat, next to me, as it happens, he was trembling with anger. “Say something,” he ordered. I got up, went to the microphone, and asked Bellow why he thought it was that so many American writers had avoided—I think I actually said, more provocatively, “abdicated”—the task of taking on the subject of America’s immense power in the world. Bellow bridled. “We don’t have tasks,” he said majestically. “We have inspirations.”

Enjoyable as such recollections are, the real significance of the congress lay deeper. In those last years of the cold war, it was important for us all to hear Eastern European writers like Danilo Kiš and Czeslaw Milosz, György Konrád and Ryszard Kapuściński, setting their visions against the visionless Soviet regime. Omar Cabezas, Nicaragua’s deputy interior minister at the time, who had just published a memoir of his life as a Sandinista guerrilla, and Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian poet, were there to articulate views not often heard on American platforms; and American writers such as Robert Stone and Kurt Vonnegut did indeed offer their critiques of American power, while the Bellows and Updikes looked inward into the American soul. In the end it is the gravity of the event, not the levity, that insists on pride of place.

In 1986 it still felt natural for writers to claim to be, as Shelley said, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” to believe in the literary art as the proper counterweight to power, and to see literature as a lofty, transnational, transcultural force that could, in Bellow’s great formulation, “open the universe a little more.” Twenty-five years later, it is harder to make such exalted claims for mere wordsmiths. Harder, but no less necessary.