PEN Participants and the Definition of Satire

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On April 27th, we held “The Meaning and Margins of Satire,” a dialogue that explored the interpretations, purposes, and psychologies of modern satire. We learned the difficulties of drawing hard lines on what constitutes satire and of predicting to what extent society will react to it. Debate continues to exist, especially as a reaction to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the cartoons that provoked them.

The week of May 4th will see the 11th annual PEN World Voices Festival, a literary festival that brings together some of the world’s most established authors in a week of activities to explore and advance literature, literary fellowship and literary expression. But recently, some of these authors aren’t very happy with one of PEN’s decisions.

Following the PEN American Center’s announcement that it would give its Freedom of Expression Courage award to Charlie Hebdo, 6 prominent writers who were set to serve as literary hosts at the festival withdrew their participation from the group’s May 5th gala. The authors disagreed with the choice of recipient for the award, disputing the idea that Charlie Hebdo truly is a champion of free speech.

Rachel Kushner, one of the authors who withdrew, was uncomfortable with the magazine’s “cultural intolerance.” Peter Carey believes that the award oversteps PEN’s traditional role of protecting freedom of expression against government oppression. Andrew Solomon, the President of PEN, understands the controversy but was surprised by the “vehemence” and the timing of the withdrawals. He reacted by saying that it was not necessary to agree with Charlie Hebdo in order to “affirm the principles” for which it stands.

The festival goes on regardless, with those 6 writers – Peter Carey, Michael Ondaatje, Francine Prose, Teju Cole, Rachel Kushner and Taiye Selasi – representing only a few of the dozens of literary hosts for the week. For more information on the festival, visit its website at

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