Capping off a tumultuous spring, free expression nonprofit PEN America held its annual Literary Gala on May 16, with more than 650 people in attendance, at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan's Upper West Side.

The event, which a PEN representative said raised $2.75 million in funding by the end of the evening, saw PEN brass strike both conciliatory and defiant tones after months of criticism from a number of authors, including many nominees for PEN's 2024 Literary Awards, over the organization's response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The outcry prompted the cancellation of both those awards and the PEN World Voices Festival.

The gala also came as negotiations with its staff union, PEN America United, continue to drag on. In a statement released on the eve of the gala, the union asserted that the "lavish event occurs as many PEN America United members have been denied raises for over 18 months and as PEN America Management has consistently lowballed unit members’ compensation in economic proposals," a characterization PEN disputes.

As attendees—including such publishing dignitaries as Penguin Random House CEO Nihar Malaviya and Simon & Schuster CEO Jonathan Karp, along with authors including two of the evening's speakers, Malcolm Gladwell and Dinaw Mengestu—filed into the museum, a group of around 20 protestors from the organization Writers Against the War On Gaza, in black tie attire, disseminated mock programs. "As the war on Gaza rages, we at PEN America have never cared less for the lives of Palestinian writers, journalists, artists, and scholars, as the work we have done for the past seven months attest," the flyers read in part. "Our efforts to silence dissent and normalize genocide would not be possible without your steadfast support, engagement, and most importantly, your dollars."

Inside the museum, the event program proceeded as planned, with the evening's presenters taking the opportunity to extensively address the organization's critics as well as tout PEN's advocacy work over the past year in response to a nationwide surge in book banning and crackdowns on campus free speech, among other issues. Awards were presented to Dow Jones CEO and Wall Street Journal publisher Almar Latour, who reminded attendees of the plight of its detained Russia reporter, Evan Gershkovich; former Fulton County, Ga., election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss; imprisoned Vietnamese author and journalist Phạm Đoan Trang; and songwriter Paul Simon, who performed a rendition of his 1973 classic "American Tune."

The gala's master of ceremonies, late night talk show host Seth Meyers, set the tone, sarcastically referring to 2024 as a year that PEN America will "always remember as super chill." PEN America president Jennifer Finney Boylan, in her remarks, wryly noted that "there have been plenty of times since January that I've wondered whether a comic transgender novelist is really what the current crisis needs."

The war in Gaza, Finney Boylan said, "has amplified divisions across the country, on college campuses, and yes, even at PEN itself," noting that some of the organization's critics "are protesting this very evening. To our critics, I want to say that we hear you, and we want to move forward with you, together," she added. "We know that you are speaking your conscience. Your protests have compelled PEN to take a hard look at its own, and its commitment to doing better in the future. So listen to me: we will amplify the voices of all writers, from Israel to Ukraine, from Palestine to Russia, from Florida to Texas."

In her remarks, Suzanne Nossel, whose decade-long tenure as PEN America CEO has been under fire in particular in recent criticism, addressed the issue even further. "Our assembly is disassembling," she said. "People of good intention and staunch conviction are wracked by a wrenching conflict. We are haunted by destruction, death, and suffering that has caused some to question PEN America’s words, deeds and purpose."

In response to critics who argue that PEN America's response to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been inadequate—some of whom have compared it, unfavorably, to the organization's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine—Nossel asserted that PEN's "work to call out assaults on Palestinian writers has been extensive and evolving." She added: "At PEN America, we’re not dogmatists. We’re not racing to be the first, the loudest, or most severe in our rhetoric. We are writers, readers, supporters and staff who lift up authors, books, and stories. We stand for free speech."

This article has been updated with further information and for clarity.