Tuesday, April 13, 2010

PEN World Festival

Another go-round of the PEN “World Voices” International Writers Festival is upon us. Last year’s included such overwhelmingly exciting highlights as Rick Moody “interviewing” fellow Insider Mark Z. Danielewski. Compelling stuff. This year well-hyped Insider Jonathan Lethem is given cred by being paired with punk retread Patti Smith, who was relevant thirty years ago but now is in the phase of cashing in.

The question is why every year PEN blows half-a-million dollars on a writers festival no one’s heard of. It’s not easy to spend that amount of money on a week of readings. The PEN folks are either spectacularly incompetent or spectacularly corrupt. Probably both.

Thoughts come to me of the last days of the Soviet Union when the leading apparatchiks—generals; ministers—lost control of events and spent most of the time drunk. American lit is filled not with dynamic personalities, but ticket-punchers; literary bureaucrats and conformists. It faces accompanying institutional decay and inertia.


It’s curious that the rise of PEN’s World Festival was simultaneous with the takeover of the American book industry by multinational conglomerates like Bertlesmann and Murdoch’s News Corp. It’s in the interest of these conglomerates to develop a showroom of international literary figures whose products can be sold in a variety of markets. This is no different than Ford producing a vehicle which can be sold in Europe, or India, or America, with few changes. Local individuality and local control are gone in the name of cost-effectiveness. Martin Amis, Zadie Smith, Orhan Pamuk, Paul Auster, Jhumpa Lahiri, Pico Iyer, Laila Lalami, Michael Ondaatje, Ian Buruma: stables of jetset writers who subscribe to the same multinational ideas and belong to the same affluent and sophisticated international intellectual class. A highly-placed well removed elite.


PEN’s World Voices is designed supposedly to end America’s cultural isolation, to make the nation more global and sophisticated, like New York. Where, then, do the geniuses at PEN with their half-million dollar festival budget to spend hold their International Festival to be able to reach us ignorant folk? In the center of Manhattan itself!

This shows that the festival show isn’t staged for the American masses, but for the conglomerates—for global decision makers in their Manhattan skyscraper offices. (And, to be fair, for other NYC plutocrats who help fund the outfit.) PEN has to justify to their puppetmasters their existence as puppets. Standard bureaucratic practice.


Established American writers caught up in the giant machine-system are so comatose they can’t contemplate change. With their stunted imaginations the thought never enters their heads. PEN staffers, supposedly serving PEN writers, receive comfortable paychecks ensuring their silence. Money maven Karen Kennerly made $77,000 as PEN exec Director in 1997. Ten years later Director Michael Roberts received close to triple that. Quite a pay spike. One can guess at the current Director’s pay.

Writers who are outside the system will discuss change, but expect it to be done moderately. Establishment pawns encourage this attitude.

Moderation changes nothing—is an excuse for doing nothing. The essence of the bureaucratic mindset: the delays of process.

Status quo doesn’t change itself. It has to be forced to change, through pressure; leverage. The REAL interest of the American literary world is to change, before, like the Soviet Union, it simply freezes up and collapses. PEN members need to wake up and take back their organization. They need to embrace the adventure of change.


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