Poison PEN?

Complex and contested charges of censorship and election-rigging have turned members of the prestigious writers' organization against one another.

Published January 14, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

is PEN, the writers' organization devoted to promoting freedom of expression around the world, itself guilty of censorship and communist-style purges? Lucy Komisar, volunteer editor of the PEN newsletter from 1993 through 1996, claims that recent changes in the organization's structure violate democratic principles and make PEN beholden to corporate interests. When she attempted to protest these developments within the pages of the newsletter, she says, she was suppressed. And when she complained about the suppression, she alleges, she was kicked out of her job through a rigged election organized by PEN's salaried, long-time executive director, Karen Kennerly.

Komisar's charges have sharply divided the membership of the prestigious organization, which claims literary figures like Arthur Miller, Susan Sontag, Gay Talese and E.L. Doctorow among its members.

"This is a story of our time about what happens when an organization with a worthy goal gets taken over by people for their own purposes -- in this case, to pal around with the rich, famous and powerful in the literary and publishing world," Komisar argues. It's a story of people who profess to stand up for freedom of expression "fail[ing] to stand up for [their ideals] because they are afraid of crossing people with the power to give them article assignments, book contracts, or even with the power to invite them to trendy parties."

Another PEN member, who requested anonymity, echoes Komisar's complaint. "It's very easy to worry about human rights in Bosnia, and not very pleasant to ensure equality and free speech in your own backyard," this member said. "The people who ask for it can appear to be bothersome."

Is there justice to Komisar's complaints? Yes and no. Behind Komisar's allegations lies a complicated, "Rashomon"-like tale that speaks more to the inherent problems of a non-profit organization run jointly by volunteers and paid staff than it does to the hypocrisy of contract-hungry authors and a power-hungry executive director. In fact, many of Komisar's specific charges crumble in the face of evidence. Though it has taken real courage for her to point out a number of long-standing problems within PEN, by exaggerating her alleged mistreatment she has damaged her own credibility and perhaps hurt her own cause.

On the face of it, Komisar's charges appear quite damning. First, she claims that the election procedure for committee chairs was rigged against her by executive director Kennerly. The nominating committee selected Judith Shulevitz, an editor at Slate, to replace Komisar; and while Komisar was gathering nominations from the membership at large to contest Shulevitz, a ballot containing only Shulevitz's name was sent out to members. After Komisar collected the requisite number of nominations, an alternate ballot was sent to the membership. But an additional obstacle was placed in the path of potential voters for Komisar: Members could vote for her only if they had saved their initial ballots, which they had received several weeks before. Naturally enough, most members had either returned or thrown out the initial ballot, therefore making it impossible for them to vote for Komisar.

In addition, Komisar claims that the organization exercised a kind of censorship over the newsletter she edited. Among her specific charges: the group attempted to prevent her from running several stories, including a story about Mumia Abu-Jamal, the black writer on death row for a conviction for murdering a police officer; a story on Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa which advocated a boycott against Shell Oil (which many human rights activists consider complicit in Saro-Wiwa's execution); and an account of the annual $900-a-ticket black-tie PEN fundraising dinner. According to Komisar, "though PEN leaders like to party with the rich and famous, they don't want members to know about this."

Every one of Komisar's charges is matched by a rebuttal. Sidney Offit, a board member for 35 years, dismisses the allegation that there was a conspiracy against Komisar. "There was nothing conspiratorial about what happened in the election," he told me. "It was a convoluted structure and a new experience in governance for the organization, and consequently it may not have gone as smoothly as it should have. I do think that the results express the overall will of the members."

Kennerly also notes that it is the right of the nominating committee to choose an official slate that members have the opportunity to vote for or against. She argues that Komisar had adequate time to gather the necessary number of nominations to contest the official nominee, and that the organization accommodated her when she turned the nominations in late by sending out a second ballot. "There's nothing in the bylaws that says or implies that if we have an inkling that somebody is trying to put together a petition that we are obliged to wait for that petition," Kennerly says.

The charges of censorship are also off base, Kennerly and others argue. The organization wasn't blocking Komisar's piece on Abu-Jamal, Kennerly explains. "We were stalling it because we were awaiting the final decision of the new president, Anne Hollander. The problem with the piece is that [Komisar] had many facts wrong, including some serious ones." Even more importantly: "The piece implied that Abu-Jamal was innocent. And PEN does not have a position on his innocence or guilt. Our position is against the death penalty."

What about Saro-Wiwa and the Shell boycott? "The reason we did not allow [Komisar] to advocate a boycott on Shell on behalf of PEN," explains Kennerly, "is that no one can make the final decision if the organization is going to take a position about a boycott or other similarly large and sober issues except the executive board. She was taking it upon herself not only to advocate this to the membership but to advocate it in the name of PEN." In any event, PEN has never received a cent from Shell, so there's no basis to imply that there's a conflict of interest to advocate the boycott. The article on the fundraising dinner, Kennerly continues, was merely an issue of space; the group's leaders weren't trying to hide the details of the gala from the membership.

As for the president and others deciding the contents of the newsletter, many argue that doing so hardly constitutes censorship. "House organs are always peculiar," muses Victor Navasky, PEN member and publisher and editorial director of The Nation. "They are not the free press. On the other hand PEN is a democratic writers' organization, and the newsletter should reflect what it is. How you reconcile those two facts is an interesting intellectual question that is worthy of discussion." Former vice president Pamela McCorduck adds that Komisar "wanted to use the newsletter as her mouthpiece, and PEN objected to that, very legitimately I think. She calls it censorship. I call it plain organizational responsibility."

Still, even if Komisar's charges are overblown, one key issue remains: the changes to the PEN governance structure, including the board. Komisar claims that these changes have made the organization increasingly undemocratic. Defenders of the new structure, by contrast, claim that the changes actually make the group more democratic.

The most drastic change: the PEN board, previously composed of 95 people, has been dissolved and replaced with one composed of 26 people. "The board got so huge we had to change the typeface on the stationery to accommodate all the names," laughs board member Meredith Tax, chair of the organization Women's WORLD. "The board was like a clogged drain. It became less and less functional because there was no flow of water. Every year five or six new people would be added, but no one would be taken off. The meetings were horrible because there were different people attending all the time. There was no continuity and the board was incapable of governing anything. It finally became a crisis."

The group has also changed the makeup of the board, making it possible for up to eight non-members of PEN to serve as board members. Supporters of the change note that this allows the group to draw upon the support of non-writers who can donate money, bring experience from other fields such as law and business, and help PEN broaden its support. Finally, the new board will be rotated on a regular basis. Pamela McCorduck, chair of the committee that proposed the changes, explains, "We had to streamline the board to make it more accountable. And we decided it would help the organization achieve what it wanted to achieve if we had some outside advice."

To Komisar, who was a member of the board for 20 years and now has been effectively kicked off -- she was the sole board member to vote against the structural changes -- the issue of outsiders joining the board has become a rallying cry. She alleges that PEN is so concerned with fundraising and bringing in "rich" people that it has lost sight of its mission.

Because she appears to have overstated her objections, Komisar herself has lost credibility in the fight for democracy within the organization -- which is unfortunate. The fact is that regardless of the validity of many of Komisar's specific allegations, there is widespread discontent among rank-and-file members who say that PEN is dominated by an inside clique.

To many, the way the recent election for committee chairs was held is indicative of a contemptuous attitude within the organization at large. Richard Grayson, the author of several collections of short stories, is considering not renewing his membership. He found the ballots "incomprehensible. I was so disgusted with the original ballot that I threw it away. Then I got the second ballot with all these choices, but there was no way to vote only for Lucy Komisar. She was the only one I wanted to vote for, but that wasn't a choice. ... I understood that they had deliberately left off the choice that I wanted."

"There is a feeling on the part of some people that the budget of PEN has grown enormously and that the executive directorship has stayed in the hands of one person," Daniela Gioseffi, author of "Women on War," complains. "I'm also worried about the corporate influence. If the publishing companies become involved in PEN, how can PEN stand up for writers and censorship in the United States? How can PEN stand up for writers' rights if CEOs and VPs of publishing companies are involved in the organization's infrastructure and governing bodies? I also see a conflict of interest because PEN awards prizes. It doesn't seem right to have editors and publishers decide [which writers] get prizes."

Gioseffi's questions are well worth considering. If PEN is a truly democratic organization, it will allow this and other contrary perspectives to be heard.

EXTRA! Looking for Mr. Greyflannel

Katie Roiphe, whose book "The Morning After" angered many feminists with its attempts to debunk date rape, is back with an argument similarly designed to annoy the same people. In the pages of the February Esquire, Roiphe tells of her fantasy that a "Man in a Grey Flannel Suit" will rescue her from her own independence -- a fantasy she suggests many independent women (and feminists) secretly share. "One has to wonder, why, at a moment in history when women can so patently take care of themselves, do so many of us want so much to be taken care of?" she asks. Aspiring Roiphe boyfriends need not worry too much, though: she notes that despite her fantasies she still dates "poets and novelists and writers ... men who don't pay for dates or buy me dresses at Bergdorf's. ..."

By Leora Tanenbaum

Leora Tanenbaum writes about gender and culture for Ms. and other magazines. She lives in New York City.

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