Writers speak out against Charlie Hebdo award

Kettlemag, Emma Jones
Written by emmalj

Literature and freedom of expression. The two go hand in hand. So it seems to come as no surprise that the writing community is playing an active role in the ongoing controversies following the tragic attack at the headquarters of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.

Literature and freedom of expression

The shootings, which French president François Hollande described as being the act of ‘terrorists’, globally revived the polemic surrounding the issue of free expression- the poignant Je Suis Charlie campaign demonstrated solidarity with the victims and their family, yet whilst some were eager to defend the magazine on the grounds of freedom of expression, others argued the magazine, with its controversial Muhammad cartoons (which the magazine have recently declared will not continue) was disrespectful towards certain communities.

The debate continues as, PEN America, an organisation supporting freedom of expression in literature, has decided to award Charlie Hebdo with its ‘freedom of expression courage award’.

Supporting freedom of expression 

However, 145 writers, including multi award-winning American author Joyce Carol Oates, have been amongst those to protest this decision, signing a letter to PEN America that, whilst agreeing the events were ‘sickening’ and ‘tragic’, challenged the belief that Charlie Hebdo deserved an award.

Writing for The Guardian, Francine Prose, amongst the writers to sign the letter, expressed her strong belief in ‘the ideals of PEN’ and Charlie Hebdo’s right to ‘publish whatever they wish’, but argued this was not the same as believing they deserve an award, which she believes requires ‘a certain respect and admiration for the work that has been done’.

On Wednesday, in a series of tweets, Joyce Carol Oates stated that whilst the letter dissociated her from PEN, she still supported the organisation and the right to freedom of speech. Like Prose, she specified that she did not believe Charlie Hebdo deserved an award, which she stated was because of the potentially offensive nature of some of its content.

The letter states that PEN America’s gesture towards Charlie Hebdo is ‘valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments in the Western world’

So whilst we might (and rightly so) associate the literary cultural sphere with freedom of expression and a challenge to censorship, as the issue of freedom of speech becomes increasingly contentious, it seems these writers are trying to reconcile their belief in freedom of expression with a cautious stance towards work which potentially offends or marginalises, and their view that such work should not necessarily be deserving of award.  It’s a difficult subject, and events such as the Charlie Hebdo tragedy remind us of the implications, conflicts and contradictions that arise surrounding the supposedly fundamental and universalizing principles of human rights.