Charlie Hebdo, free speech and the problem with writer celebrity

The Prominent Writers Unit of PEN, the international authors group, has been scuffling over whether to honour Charlie Hebdo at their annual elegant fest in New York. The issue is: should Charlie's alleged anti-Muslimism bar them from a "courage" award despite the lethal attack on them, which everyone deplores? Canadian Michael Ondaatje is among those who withdrew as hosts.

I think the problem here is that very prominence, the cult of writers as celebs, turned to expectantly about areas other than their work.

Francine Prose, a former PEN America president and fellow withdrawee, says she "couldn't imagine being in the audience when they have a standing ovation for Charlie Hebdo." Why are writers exercising their imaginations on being at a glam dinner in a glam venue and having their standing O scrutinized by an imagined audience? Since when are writers supposed to be the centre of their own work -- not as writers or humans but as diners at a posh banquet dispensing awards? When did PEN become the Oscars? There's an answer to that. It goes back to the rise of the cult of the writer, and of the artist as celebrity.

Shelley, in A Defence of Poetry in 1820, called poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world. OK, that's ambitious. But note first he said poets, not bestselling novelists with high-powered agents who get film deals and multi-book contracts. And he said unacknowledged. Everything changes when writers are acclaimed not just for their art but their worldly success and influence by all the normal gatekeepers.

Once they start taking themselves seriously because they're famous and revered, they're merely another part of the world, which must look elsewhere for its unacknowledged legislators (TV series runners?). Anyway, they're supposed to do the legislating in poetry, not actual laws or political campaigns or at awards banquets, duly reported and televised. Of course they have a right to all that but it's not accompanied by any special virtues by virtue of the fact they're writers.

Whoops, I seem to have slipped into keep-yer-art-out-of-yer-politics mode, so let me say where I stand on the actual issue. Re: free speech, I'm a kind of negative minimalist. I think PEN should defend speech -- especially speech that it finds offensive -- to the outermost possible limit. I don't deny speech can do harm. It's our human essence, of course it can damage. So I understand wanting to limit it due to such harm; but it also has immense value that may well be worth the price. These are arguments worth having.

I confess I fall on the minimalist side -- almost anything should be allowed -- for largely biographical reasons. I've experienced enough censorship, especially in earlier years, that I fear any suppression will eventually be visited back on me. Plus historically the left has been the opponent, not supporter, of restrictions.

But in any case, I don't see the value of positively declaring what topics should be pursued -- diversity, niceness, socialism -- versus a focus on preventing restriction. It's well-intended but snare-ridden. Another withdrawee said he would "rather honour" writers "whose ideals are much more progressive than Charlie's." Fair enough. Then stay home. Or even better, cancel these awards with their endorsement quality. I wouldn't mind losing the banquets either.

Merely defending free speech, full stop, sounds pretty vanilla but it's often not so easy. Take two cases. I went to Soviet-era Poland to give a lecture in an elegant venue largely because I'd been assured by the Poles in charge that PEN's international president had spoken in the same series. I later learned he'd done it under very specific conditions. So I wound up lending small but usable cred to a wily, repressive regime. I -- a PEN Canada board member -- botched it.

Awhile later, the CBC said it wouldn't permit staff to appear at a journalism convention if I were invited. (I'd written that CBC had become Canada's first ministry of propaganda since the Second World War.) The journalists' group caved, it leaked and I asked PEN's leadership to write letters calling this unacceptable. They hemmed and hawed, came up with numerous alternate lame solutions, so I sent in my resignation, at which point PEN wrote the letters and I stayed in.

What's my point? It's not so easy merely prying open the gates of expression without reaching beyond that to itemize what they admit. Speaking itself is already hard enough -- though we underestimate that since almost everyone eventually does it -- let alone free speech, let alone writing.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Alan Weir/flickr

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