Archive for April, 2015

The Shock of the Average: PEN and Charlie

April 28, 2015

Like most people I was horrified and saddened at the Charlie Hebdo massacres in Paris back in January. However, I felt that also some hope came out of the atrocity because so many people took to the streets to express solidarity with the dead. I remember the 2005 Jyllands-Posten affair when it seemed like freedom of expression was this niche thing, almost hipsterish in its obscurity. The reaction in 2015 was very different and more positive. As a friend said to me on Twitter: ‘I think a lot of people have realised recently what liberty really means.’

Now there has been controversy over a PEN award for Charlie Hebdo. Six PEN novelists have withdrawn from the award event, for various reasons. Rachel Kushner complained about what she saw as the magazine’s ‘forced secular view’, Peter Carey declared to the NYT: ‘A hideous crime was committed, but was it a freedom-of-speech issue for PEN America to be self-righteous about?’ In the Guardian, Francine Prose expands on her reasons for withdrawal – she felt Charlie Hebdo was ‘an inappropriate recipient’ of a PEN award; the magazine’s content did not have ‘the importance – the necessity – that would deserve such an honor’; the magazine concentrated on ‘drawing crude caricatures and mocking religion.’

Is this really a story? After all, nobody is obliged to host a PEN gala, or even to attend one. It’s not a walkout, so much as a flounce. There was very little reference – I am struck how often this is the case with Charlie’s critics – to the content of the magazine. Francine Prose refers to ‘crude cartoons’ and indeed there’s a historic art snobbery against this medium. The cartoonist Chris Ware has discussed, in the Paris Review, his experiences studying at Chicago’s Art Institute, where the attitude was ‘that to make art actually ‘about’ something – whether it was other people or plants or anything – was considered illustration and thus irrevocably aesthetically corrupt.’

I don’t read French so a lot of Charlie content is going to be lost on me. But it surprised me, in the wake of the massacre, how often the journal was dismissed as a kind of Daily Mail offshoot, when the more I read about the magazine, the more it seemed like something writers should support: ironical, imaginative, creative, challenging and discursive. I can also understand why people would be offended by some of its art. I do think civility is important. Then again, the real test of a civil society is that you shouldn’t get murdered in broad daylight for going to work. Contra Francine Prose, the killings were not a ‘narrative’: they really happened.

We discussed this at our local debating group a few weeks after the massacre. The others in the group weren’t so keen on Charlie Hebdo: they complained that they felt pressured into solidarity (‘it’s like everyone has to say ‘Je suis Charlie”) they said the magazine was ‘too provocative’, ‘punching down,’ ‘too clever,’ and its satire was ‘not necessary’. I argued – perhaps a little too forcefully? – that it doesn’t matter if you have the right respectable ideas or the right respectable politics. There are fundamentalists out there who will kill you for the crime of living in a free country and discussing issues freely. Authoritarians may first come for the degenerates, the artists, the hipsters, the rootless cosmopolitans – given chance and time, though, they will devour all of us.

I’m not sure I convinced anyone. But perhaps that’s the key to the distaste of Peter Carey, Francine Prose, Rachel Kusher, and the other distinguished novelists – it is the shock of the average, the shock of pseudo-radicals when they are faced with actual, creative transgressives. Art that isn’t generated by committee, does not hit approved political targets, and might be worth risking a bullet for.

As I say, perhaps this is a non story, and I’m sure the PEN event will be a success without the stewardship of these novelists. As the Hitch said, in a rather similar context: ‘no political coalition with them is now necessary. It no longer matters what they think.’