Writers at War: The Literary World Loves a Feud, but a Fierce Row Is Threatening English PEN's Very Existence. the Casualties May Be Imprisoned Authors around the World

By Cox, David | New Statesman (1996), October 18, 2004 | Go to article overview
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Writers at War: The Literary World Loves a Feud, but a Fierce Row Is Threatening English PEN's Very Existence. the Casualties May Be Imprisoned Authors around the World


Cox, David, New Statesman (1996)


Writers persecuted by oppressive regimes know they can count on help from at least one quarter. Since 1921, England's literary lions have fought the oppression of their less fortunate peers through an organisation called English PEN, the first and most illustrious of what is now a global network of 130 writers' centres in a hundred different countries. Today, the English centre's luminaries include William Boyd, A S Byatt, Margaret Drabble, Antonia Fraser, Ben Okri, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, yet its very survival is being threatened by a savage dispute.

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Suspicion, distrust, backbiting, smear tactics, simple loathing and sometimes extremely unliterary abuse have come to characterise a struggle that has been waged until now behind the closed doors of London's literary salons. The organisation's president, Alastair Niven, has accused some members of being "determined to continue the discussion as though it were a war". He has warned them that the conflict has already "hugely damaged our reputation with potential funders". Since English PEN is now engulfed in a cash crisis, such damage could prove terminal.

As in the works of many of PEN's members, money plays a major role in the drama, but so, too, do pride, pique and principle.

The origins of the present trouble date back to the three-year terms of Niven's immediate predecessor, the biographer Victoria Glendinning, and her predecessor, the novelist Rachel Billington. Under these grandes dames, the organisation began to expand its horizons beyond the unglamorous world of torture and imprisonment towards more congenial, British-based activities. With this burgeoning agenda came a drive for growth. "We need larger and better premises; we need to expand our current projects and create new ones," Glendinning declared.

When Niven took over last December, he pushed on with this "New PEN" mission, strengthening the grip of paid executives at the expense of ordinary writer-members. The pattern will be familiar to members of other voluntary organisations caught up in the fashion for professionalisation, with its attendant jargon of "programmes" and "governance issues". Fresh initiatives were launched, such as the Writers in Translation programme, which stages parties to celebrate the work of overseas authors, even if they are in no danger at all. Among PEN's more traditionalist members, concern began to develop.

Nowhere was this more intense than on PEN's Writers in Prison Committee. This body, involving just 26 of the organisation's thousand-strong membership, is the cutting edge of its human rights campaigning. Committee members adopt individual imprisoned writers in such places as Burma, Cuba and China, and then support them with letters and campaign for their release. Every year, a few of these prisoners do get released, though WiPC members rarely have the satisfaction of knowing whether their efforts have played any part. Amnesty International was based on this PEN model.

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What Niven and his executives saw as modernisation began to look, to some members of the WiPC, like the marginalisation of their efforts. "PEN is registered at Unesco as a non-governmental organisation," one WiPC member told the New Statesman. "So is it to be essentially a human rights body, or a literary club which does a bit of good work on the side?" It was not long before such "Old PEN" stalwarts were able to add more concrete concerns to their growing disquiet.

Modernisation has not come cheap. Salaries for the growing numbers of paid staff amounted to [pounds sterling]139,978 last year, not counting pension contributions. Another [pounds sterling]20,000 was spent on public relations and [pounds sterling]6,000 on publicists. Yet English PEN's core income, its members' subscriptions, yielded just [pounds sterling]27,500. A one-off Arts Council grant of [pounds sterling]45,000 will help bridge the gap, and some of the organisation's archive is to be sold, yet by last spring financial meltdown was beginning to look like a real possibility.

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