Apr 22, 2024 - Politics & Policy

PEN America cancels literary awards ceremony after Gaza response backlash

Seth Meyers speaks onstage during the 2020 PEN America Literary Awards Ceremony at The Town Hall on March 02, 2020 in New York City.

The PEN America Literary Awards had been held every year since 1963. Photo: Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images for PEN America

PEN America announced Monday the cancellation of its annual literary awards ceremony after nearly half of the nominated authors withdrew over the nonprofit's response to the Israel-Hamas war.

The big picture: The move comes after weeks of criticism and brewing dissatisfaction from authors with the literary group that intends to defend free expression.

  • A group of nominees wrote in a letter last week that they are protesting the "failure to confront the genocide of the Palestinian people and defend our fellow writers in Gaza."
  • They called for several of the organization's leaders to resign immediately.
  • "We refuse to gild the reputation of an organization that runs interference for an administration aiding and abetting genocide with our tax dollars," the authors wrote. "And we refuse to take part in anything that will serve to overshadow PEN's complicity in normalizing genocide."

State of play: Nearly two dozens writers pulled out of the high-profile PEN World Voice Festival last month, citing the organization's alleged failure toward Palestinian writers and journalists and for failing to call for a ceasefire as its global parent organization, PEN International, had done.

  • PEN America responded with a letter highlighting its "extensive" work on the war in Gaza and its focus on advocacy and support for writers, and called for "an immediate ceasefire and release of the hostages."
  • The authors replied back and called for an external review of the nonprofit "with regard to the tragic consequences of the Israeli occupation that is currently playing out and has played out in Israel and Palestine for several decades."

Zoom in: Of the 61 authors and translators nominated, 28 chose to withdraw their books from consideration.

  • Nine of 10 finalists for the most prestigious award, which comes with a $75,000 prize, were among those who withdrew. The money will be donated to the Palestine Children's Relief Fund, at the direction of the Estate of Jean Stein, the namesake of the award.

What they're saying: "We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not," Clarisse Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America's chief program officer of literary programming, said in a statement Monday.

  • The organization said it had already selected five finalists and a winner for each award, and those who have not dropped out will still receive their cash price. No winners will be announced in categories in which the chosen authors have withdrawn.
  • "We regret that this unprecedented situation has taken away the spotlight from the extraordinary work selected by esteemed, insightful and hard-working judges across all categories. As an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and writers, our commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors and the literary community is steadfast."

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