PEN is the most elitist literary organization in the United States. Its membership is determined by connections and money.
The PEN organization is a tax shelter, a refuge for the money of rich people. As with so many elite "non-profit" tax shelters, its monetary awards go more likely to trust fund writers they know than to writers in true need. I sometimes think arts foundations exist solely to further enrich the most privileged members of society. (Miranda July is a typical case.)
PEN in New York is most known for throwing swanky, very exclusive black-tie parties.
PEN's mission ostensibly is to support "freedom of expression" and defend "writers under siege." They ignore, of course, writers under siege in their own country. The great economic upheavals of the last 25 years they've willfully never seen. Once-great industrial centers like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit have been devastated; hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed. The small family farm in the Midwest has largely vanished as part of the rise of conglomerate monopoly. NOWHERE have these stories been covered by the official literary scene.
The PEN aristocrats and their like are too busy "Reading the World" to bother reading their own country. They view that world through the prism of insane hypocrisy.
After all, these privileged conglomerate-backed writers are the beneficiaries and soldiers of the same monopolistic global economy that created and sustains the dynamic of First World and Third; a world of Overdogs and dependency. It's a trick game where wealth is shoveled into the back door of the PEN building (metaphorically speaking) so the aristocrats can parade out the pristine front entrance in gowns and black tie to proclaim to the world of impoverished masses, "We're here to help you people!"
Bono or Springsteen announcing their concern from hilltop mansion gates.
There are two PENs in the U.S. today. Last fall I researched the west coast version for a possible essay. I looked at the monetary awards for "Emerging Voices." I discovered that most go not to individuals in need, but to highly educated, fairly successful people.
If not need, then what are the criteria?
Simply: ethnicity. Race. It's the height of racism to set up a relationship of designated inferiority so the literary aristocrat can pose as benefactor (with tax-sheltered money) from an assumed position of superiority. Oh, but diversity. Diversity! The same diversity as including upper-class writers from India in your collections of American upper class writers, a racist game to give the false impression of artistic democracy.
The PEN organization is a large subject worthy of our scrutiny. Who's doing it? I'm too busy trying to economically survive to have the time. Are the 700 great critics of National Book Critics Circle conducting the investigation?
In no way. Instead, on their site they post PEN organization press releases. The National Book Critics Circle is not a journalistic entity. You'll find not a shred of investigative journalism about today's literary scene. Neither will you find in this nation's newspaper book review sections one spark of literary investigation either. Instead, you'll be hit with a never-ending series of lit-establishment press releases.
This nation's established book magazines also are little more than glorified fan magazines, with the bovine acceptance of p.r. that you more usually find about teenage pop music idols. It's a sign of official American literature's utter bankruptcy.