Six literary luminaries have announced that they will not attend the PEN American Center’s gala May 3 at the Natural History Museum in New York.

Nope, it’s not because their black tie duds will be at the cleaners that evening; it is because the PEN Center has decided to give its annual Freedom of Expression Courage award to the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo. Twelve Charlie Hebdo staffers were killed by Islamic terrorists after the magazine continued to publish satire pieces to which extremists objected.  

Bravo to author Salman Rushdie, who has lived years under an Islamic fatwa, for dubbing these jerks “Six Authors in Search of a Bit of Character.” Rushdie wrote:

“If PEN as a free-speech organisation can’t defend and celebrate people who have been murdered for drawing pictures, then frankly the organisation is not worth the name,” Rushdie said. “What I would say to both [novelist Peter Carey] and [novelist Michael Ondaatje] and the others is, I hope nobody ever comes after them.”

In addition to Ondaatje, author of The English Patient, and Carey, an Australian novelist and Booker Prize winner, other Hebdo boycotters are: award winning Nigerian-American photographer and writer Teju Cole; Francine Prose, a former PEN American Center president and author of a novel about sexual harassment on campus; London-born writer and photographer Taiye Selasi, who uses her Nigerian and Ghanaian roots in her work; and Rachel Kushner, whose first novel, Telex from Cuba, was a National Book Award finalist.

The New York Times gives details:

In an email to PEN’s leadership on Friday, Ms. Kushner said she was withdrawing out of discomfort with what she called the magazine’s “cultural intolerance” and promotion of “a kind of forced secular view,” opinions echoed by other writers who pulled out.

Mr. Carey, in an email interview yesterday, said the award stepped beyond the group’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression.

“A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?” he wrote.

He added, “All this is complicated by PEN’s seeming blindness to the cultural arrogance of the French nation, which does not recognize its moral obligation to a large and disempowered segment of their population.”

Andrew Solomon, the president of PEN, said on Sunday that the six writers were the only ones that [sic] he knew of among the dinner’s several dozen literary hosts who had reconsidered their participation in the gala, which occurs during the group’s annual World Voices Festival, a weeklong event that brings dozens of writers from around the globe to New York City.

The withdrawals reflect the debate over Charlie Hebdo that erupted immediately after the attack, with some questioning whether casting the victims as free-speech heroes ignored what some saw as the magazine’s particular glee in beating up on France’s vulnerable Muslim minority.

In an essay for The New Yorker’s website after the attack, Mr. Cole noted that the magazine claimed to offend all parties, but in fact in recent years “has gone specifically for racist and Islamophobic provocations.” (Mr. Cole declined to comment for this article.)

This month, the cartoonist Garry Trudeau drew criticism from a number of news-media commentators for saying in a speech that “by attacking a powerless, disenfranchised minority with crude, vulgar drawings closer to graffiti than cartoons, Charlie wandered into the realm of hate speech.”

I hate to be skeptical but I can’t help thinking that if these six writers would have been all too happy to show up if the murder of the Charlie Hebdo staffers had been perpetrated by anyone other than Islamic extremists. It is difficult to determine whether the PEN Six are afraid of Islamic extremists or perhaps somehow believe that such extremists are victims of the West.

Francine Prose won the Non Sequitor Award for her explanation to the AP of why she is planning to be a no-show:

Prose said she was in favor 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.

One does so deplore it when twelve people are murdered in cold blood.

To be sure Charlie Hebdo was outrageous and many people (like me, for example, whose beliefs were attacked) would be offended by much of what it published. But to say that this magazine does not deserve an award for courage and freedom of expression is outrageous. It was an excellent choice by the PEN American Center.

Let’s hope somebody does a satire on PEN’s Pompous Six. They richly deserve to be pilloried.