Criticism over freedom of expression nonprofit PEN America's response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has mounted steadily since October 7, and came to a boiling point this week, with its Literary Awards ceremony, World Voices Festival, and Literary Gala all less than a month away. Mass withdrawals of books longlisted for PEN's Literary Awards have left many questioning how the ceremony can possibly proceed as planned. While PEN has yet to release an update on its forthcoming programming, on April 18 board president Jennifer Finney Boylan, in a letter, committed to conducting a "review" of PEN’s work "going back a decade, to ensure we are aligned with our mission.”

Last week, a number of nominees withdrew their books from consideration for PEN awards citing the organization's response to the war in Gaza. Esther Allen, one of three cofounders of the World Voices Festival, also declined this year's PEN/Ralph Manheim Award for Translation. Since that time, nine of the 10 longlisted authors for this year's PEN/Jean Stein Book Award, which comes with a $75,000 monetary prize, have withdrawn their books from consideration.

When contacted for comment, a PEN America administrator told PW that the organization is in touch with authors nominated for this year’s awards, and has paused announcing this year's awards finalists as it deliberates on how to move forward with the upcoming awards ceremony, which is slated for April 29. The administrator added that the PEN/Jean Stein Award will not be awarded by default to the one remaining longlisted author, as the judging protocol for the award has not been changed in response to the withdrawals.

According to the activist organization Writers Against the War on Gaza (WAWOG), a further 20 authors have withdrawn their longlisted books for other PEN awards including the PEN/Robert W. Bingham, PEN/Hemingway, PEN/Robert J. Dau, and PEN/Voelcker awards, as well as the PEN Translation Prize, PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, and PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant. The books have since been rounded up in a collection, “2024 PEN America Literary Awards Boycott for Palestine,” curated by WAWOG and currently featured on the homepage of

Furthermore, on April 17, 21 authors signed a letter of refusal addressed to the executive board and trustees of PEN America demanding, among other items, the immediate resignations of Finney Boylan, CEO Suzanne Nossel, and the executive committee. Another nine signatories have pledged to donate prize money to mutual aid funds funds in Gaza. (Iliad translator Emily Wilson, who was not a signatory, also pledged to donate prize money in an April 18 tweet.)

“We cannot, in good faith, align with an organization that has shown such blatant disregard of our collective values,” the letter states. “We stand in solidarity with a free Palestine. We refuse to be honored by an organization that acts as a cultural front for American exceptionalism. We refuse to gild the reputation of an organization that runs interference for an administration aiding and abetting genocide with our tax dollars. And we refuse to take part in celebrations that will serve to overshadow PEN’s complicity in normalizing genocide.”

The letter also cited another letter, sent on April 4 from PEN South Africa to its members, which summarizes an earlier missive sent to PEN America, addressing "pressing concerns” over the latter organization’s “coverage of the siege of Gaza.” Those include, as per the letter, “their lack of coverage of the over 122 journalists and media workers killed by Israeli forces in Gaza” and “that none of the 38 statements made since October 7 have directly condemned Israeli forces for the killing of some thirty thousand Palestinians.” PEN South Africa added: “This is troublingly inconsistent both with how PEN America have—rightly, in our view—responded to Russia’s assault on Ukrainian civilians and the Hamas-led attacks on Israeli civilians.”

The situation comes after months of increasing public criticism from some of PEN America's membership and others in the literary world over the organization's coverage of the crisis in Gaza. This criticism includes an open letter signed by hundreds of writers in February; the withdrawal of more than a dozen authors, including Michelle Alexander, Isabella Hammad, Naomi Klein, and Lorrie Moore, from this year's World Voices Festival in March; and several missives from its sister chapter, PEN South Africa.

In its initial response, PEN America said that the April 17 letter of refusal “reads to us as a demand to foreclose dialogue in the name of intellectual conformity,” a position it characterized as “at odds with the PEN Charter and what we stand for as an organization.” PEN added: “The current war in Gaza is horrific. But we cannot agree that the answer to its wrenching dilemmas and consequences lies in a shutting down of conversation and the closing down of viewpoints. We respect all writers for acting out of their consciences, and will continue in our mission to defend their freedom to express themselves."

Since that response, “the executive committee of the board of PEN America,” Finney Boylan wrote in her April 18 letter, “has now charged a working group of authors and scholars to review PEN’s work—not just over the last six months, but indeed, going back a decade, to ensure we are aligned with our mission, and to make recommendations about how we respond to future conflicts. This group, consisting of individuals both inside and outside of PEN America (including a representative with some experience at PEN International), will spend the next several months doing a deep dive into our work, and will make recommendations which will form, I hope, the basis of a clearer, better understood approach to our work on free expression in conflict that is consistent and true to PEN America and the writers whom we represent.”

This story has been updated with further information.