Thursday, May 07, 2009

When Did PEN Lose Its Soul?

There's a fascinating chapter in Susan Sontag: The Making of an Icon by Carl Rollyson and Lisa Paddock (2000), which discusses the transformation of PEN American Center in the 80's and 90's.

"PEN had been a small organization precisely because it drew money largely from writers who did not have that much to give. This was not perceived as a failing. Indeed, to the young Susan Sontag, shabbiness was a writer's badge of honor."

(How things have changed!)

In truth, PEN was never as democratic as it should've been, as its ideals purported it to be. In 1985 though it began an urgent embrace of New York's big money players. Ironically, Susan Sontag, like Norman Mailer before her, became one of the enablers of this embrace.

Mailer and Sontag had credibility as well-known literary radicals, albeit radicals owned by book companies, who were entranced by the allurements of celebrity and power.

This became evident by the time Susan Sontag became President of PEN in 1987:

"--Ted Solotaroff, the renowned editor of American Review, where Sontag had published some of her fiction, 'worried that the current leadership increasingly has the look of a Politburo.' But little was done to address his concerns. In the previous fifteen years PEN had become a much larger organization. It now held an 'indispensable Benefit Dinner' each year to solicit funds from the moneyed class. The first one Sontag would preside over would be at the Hotel Pierre."

Other biographers, such as Sohnya Sayres in Susan Sontag: The Elegaic Modernist (1990), are less critical of Sontag:

"Considering the spectacle of PEN's latest appearance on the society page, dined by the fabulously rich, I suppose Sontag's brokerage could take on real clout."

Rollyson and Paddock document the dissension within PEN ranks (and from others) over the years, quoting James Purdy, George Garrett, and Seymour Krim denouncing PEN's elitism. When the big move toward New York money players began in 1985, "--the libertarian-egalitarian wing of PEN loathed the organization's new ties to its big-money financial backers." By the time the final outcry over this happened in 1997 (see "PEN Background" post below), the bedding by New York finance was entrenched. Like the horse being taken away to the glue factory in Orwell's "Animal Farm," the realization of what had occurred came too late.

The constant from 1985 to 1997 as PEN changed was PEN Executive Director Karen Kennerly. (The Executive Director is supposed to work for the writers in the membership and on the board.) The Rollyson-Paddock book suggests Kennerly was the real power behind PEN during this time period.

Whose interests did Karen Kennerly represent? Those of American writers? PEN American Center today is an expression of chic New York financial people, the book conglomerates, and their causes. Karen Kennerly, incidentally, now works as a Manhattan real estate broker.

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