The 2017 PEN Literary Gala, held on April 26 at the Museum of Natural History in New York, saw the publishing and nonprofit worlds come together in support of free speech. PEN president Andrew Solomon said the fundraiser was PEN's most successful to date, with nearly $2 million raised.
The publisher honoree was Macmillan CEO John Sargent, who spoke about the importance of the First Amendment to a room filled with authors such as Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, and Salman Rushdie. "For those of us who have to make significant decisions on First Amendment issues, our choices are, by necessity, personal," Sargent said, adding that the amendment only referred to Congress's obligation to "make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and that it does not even define what free speech is. "There is little guidance, and the obligation to follow the amendment is only moral—there is no law that binds us."
In his address, Sargent stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of speech in an industry that is built upon its principles—even when the speech needing protection or publication does not align with publishers' personal politics. The argument touched on an issue that has proven divisive in publishing of late, especially surrounding the now-abandoned book deal between alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Simon & Schuster, but also applies to Macmillan imprint Henry Holt's decision to continue to publish the works of former Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly after the network let him go in the wake of numerous sexual harassment allegations.
Sargent noted historical examples as well, pointing to how "demoralized" he was after Simon & Schuster pulled American Psycho in the 1980s and "the great respect" he felt after Rushdie and his publisher, Viking, "withstood the onslaught" of anger and threats from portions of the Islamic world over the publication of Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.
As publishing becomes more consolidated, and the retailing of books becomes more consolidated, there are fewer and fewer of us who decide what books get wide distribution in America," Sargent said. He added that simply deferring to self-publishers and expecting them to publish works rooted in speech or ideology that those in the book industry don't agree with isn't enough—despite his personal political inclinations. "There is a steady drumbeat asserting that lines should be drawn, that the rising incivility from one side or the other should not be given a megaphone.... But unfortunately the very act of drawing a line, and making that decision, runs counter to our obligation to defend free speech."
Others honored last night included Stephen Sondheim, who actress Meryl Streep presented with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award; the 2017 Women's March, awarded with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Award; and the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov, who was awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
This article has been updated with further information.