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Authors Criticize Pen America's Decision To Honor 'Charlie Hebdo' Survivors


The PEN American Center's annual award for courageous free-speech is prestigious, but it doesn't always get much attention. It is this year, though, because the award is going to Charlie Hebdo, the French magazine which was the target of a terrorist attack because of its satirical portrayal of Muslims. As NPR's Lynn Neary reports, some prominent writers don't the magazine deserves the award.

LYNN NEARY, BYLINE: After the January attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo that left 12 people dead, demonstrators took to the streets of France to express their support for the magazine and for its right to free speech.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in French).

NEARY: But even as the chants were fading, other voices were emerging, critical of Charlie Hebdo. While the attack on the magazine's offices was widely condemned, critics said the magazine's portrayals of Muslims were deliberately provocative and insulting to a group of people who were already being discriminated against in France. So PEN President Andrew Solomon is not surprised that the organization's decision to honor Charlie Hebdo with its annual freedom of expression courage award is controversial. But Solomon says the magazine stood up to what he called an assassin's veto over free speech.

ANDREW SOLOMON: It's an attempt to intimidate everyone into thinking these conversations are too dangerous to have; these topics are too dangerous to address. There's no way that we can talk about these things because if we do, we put ourselves in immediate danger.

NEARY: Charlie Hebdo deserves the award, Solomon says.

SOLOMON: There have been very few places where people have consistently and constantly been willing to say the things that are offensive and to defend them as part of free speech.

NEARY: Now, just a week before the award is to be given to Charlie Hebdo, six well-known authors, including Rachel Kushner and Peter Carey, have told PEN they cannot support this year's winner. Novelist Francine Prose is among the dissenters.

FRANCINE PROSE: This not really about freedom of speech.

NEARY: Prose says she absolutely supports the magazine's right to publish the offensive material, but that doesn't mean she thinks they deserve an award for it.

PROSE: I don't think that provocation, which is essentially what Charlie Hebdo was involved in, is the same as courage. I don't think being a provocateur is the same as being a hero. And I don't think that being a victim is the same as being a hero. I don't, I should say, support terrorism. I don't support violence. I don't support censorship of any sort. But I also feel an award means that you are behind the sort of work that's being done.

NEARY: Andrew Solomon says he understands the writer's position, but he thinks they're missing the point.

SOLOMON: I think that if we don't endorse people who are taking these courageous stances, if we don't recognize the enormous personal risks they're taking and if we don't fully acknowledge that in taking that risk they keep a public discourse alive that otherwise is in danger of being entirely closed down, that we miss the purpose of standing up for free speech.

NEARY: Charlie Hebdo will receive the award at a dinner in New York on May 5. Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.