The Pen Club Honours Charlie Hebdo: A Literary Controversy

Charlie HebdoMichael Ondaatje, Francine Prose and at least four other writers have withdrawn from next month’s PEN American Center gala, citing objections to the literary and human rights organization’s honouring the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

PEN announced Sunday that the writers were upset by Charlie Hebdo’s portrayals of Muslims and “the disenfranchised generally.” The Paris-based magazine, where 12 people were killed in a January attack at its offices, is to receive a Freedom of Expression Courage Award at the May 5 event in Manhattan. Much of the literary community rallied behind Charlie Hebdo after the shootings, but some have expressed unhappiness with its scathing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad and other Muslims.

“I was quite upset as soon as I heard about (the award),” Prose, a former PEN American president, told the Associated Press during a telephone interview Sunday night. Prose said she was in favour of “freedom of speech without limitations” and that she “deplored” the January shootings, but added that giving an award signified “admiration and respect” for the honoree’s work. “I couldn’t imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo,” Prose said.

The gala is the highlight of PEN’s annual, week-long World Voices Festival and is intended as a celebration of artistic achievement and expression, with past award winners including Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth. Besides Charlie Hebdo, which will be represented by editor in chief Gerard Biard and critic and essayist Jean-Baptiste Thoret, others receiving awards include playwright Tom Stoppard, Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova and Penguin Random House CEO Markus Dohle.

Prose and Ondaatje were among more than 60 writers scheduled to serve as hosts. According to PEN, the other hosts who decided not to attend were Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner, Taiye Selasi and Peter Carey.

In a letter sent earlier Sunday to PEN trustees, current PEN American president Andrew Solomon acknowledged that several people were offended by some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, but added that PEN believed strongly in the “appropriateness” of the award.

“It is undoubtedly true that in addition to provoking violent threats from extremists, the Hebdo cartoons offended some other Muslims, as their cartoons offended members of the many other groups they targeted,” Solomon wrote.

“But, based on their own statements, we believe that Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims, but rather to reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority to place broad categories of speech off limits, no matter the purpose, intent or import of the expression,” he said. “We do not believe that any of us must endorse the contents of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons in order to affirm the principles for which they stand, or applaud the staff’s bravery in holding fast to those values in the face of life and death threats.”

Source: The Globe and Mail, April 28


1. It would not have occurred to the Pen Club to honour Charlie Hebdo if it had not been for the murders.

2. If it had not been for the murders, nobody would raise an eyebrow over anybody staying away from the gala.

3. Ondaatje and the other dissenters are not the only people who believe that some of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons went beyond the limits of legitimate satire. Some accused the editors of “cultural arrogance” and racism.

4. The French tradition of fearlessly satirizing religious and political targets rejects some of the limitations satirists in other countries, such as Canada, willingly accept.

5. The Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons should be seen in the light of the political tensions between the majority and the Muslim minority and the current debate about immigration policies.

6. Ondaatje and the others have every right to stay away from the gala since they chose to judge this matter according to universal moral standards rather than in the perspective of French politics.

7. Any of them might probably say: “If I write a second-class piece and a fanatic takes offence and murders me, that does not turn it into a first-class piece, nor does it makes me a martyr for the cause of free speech.”


3 responses to “The Pen Club Honours Charlie Hebdo: A Literary Controversy

  1. Michael Gundy

    I find myself agreeing with all seven of the Comments. Somehow the stench of pompous aging misanthropes with questionable hygiene is stronger than their literary martyr status.

  2. Simply do not believe “Charlie Hebdo’s intent was not to ostracize or insult Muslims.” Just as I am sure they intended to insult the Roman Catholic Church in other cartoons. There should be legitimate restraints on the rights of free speech when they are intended to offend the beliefs of others and incite. This debate has actually renewed my support for the concept of blasphemy laws (with clear limits), which are still on the books in Ontario. While I of course do not support any violence against offenders, nor am not sure I support jailing someone for drawing Mohammed or mocking Jesus (“The Life of Brian”), individuals and society should have a way of expressing disapproval of what is intended to intentionally offend and can reasonably be expected to incite.

  3. Simon Fodden

    Not clear on the point of points 1 and 2. (Obviously part of a thought experiment, but what exactly?) #3 is uncontroversial: there are always, rightly and wrongly, people who think X or Y is too much or too little. #4 is the signal point, in my estimation. We simply do not grasp the French (and wider European) determination to ridicule religion. It’s hard, I find, to respect the believer and disrespect the belief. #5 is important and loaded, requiring much care in getting good data and thought. #6 is uncontroversial and obvious. #7 is possibly wrong: it depends; and besides 1st class / 2nd class will take them where they likely don’t really want to go.