CARL ROLLYSON WRITES: I am working on a biography of Susan Sontag for W. W. Norton. Last October, I called PEN American Center to request board minutes for 1987–1989 when she was president. I was told they would get back to me. I called a week later and was informed that PEN’s attorneys had advised that my request be denied because, while I am now a PEN member, I had not been during Sontag’s presidency. I replied that such reasoning seems disingenuous for an organization created to promote openness, freedom of expression, and understanding among writers.

In early November, I wrote to Karen Kennerly, PEN’s executive director, and got no answer until January 3, when she wrote (replying to my second letter of December 16) that I would have my answer when the new board met later in January. Hearing nothing, I wrote again on February 24, pointing out that it had been easier for me to obtain Lillian Hellman’s FBI file (for my 1988 biography of Hellman) than to get an answer out of PEN.

The recent controversy involving Lucy Komisar, editor of the PEN newsletter, is only the latest evidence that PEN is neither democratic nor open when it comes to examining its own practices. As one writer quipped, PEN “would be the first to defend Lucy Komisar if she were in Bosnia or Tiananmen Square.” Behind the scenes, I’m told that no one wants to offend Sontag (still a board member), and that things are said at board meetings about other PEN chapters that would prove embarrassing if seen in the light of day. When I recently wrote to Komisar at PEN, her letter was opened before it was forwarded to her home address. What a pathetic, conspiratorial way to behave. It reminds me of teaching in Communist Poland, where—by the way—my wife and co-author, Lisa Paddock, and I met Sontag in 1980. It is now six months since I requested PEN’s board minutes. The iron curtain remains intact.

POSTSCRIPT, APRIL 21: On April 16, near the end of a long PEN meeting about openness and democratization in PEN, I spoke briefly about the organization’s stonewalling of my request for board minutes. Clearly angry that I had raised the issue at a public meeting, PEN’s new president, Michael Scammel, asked me if I had Susan Sontag’s permission to write her biography. I replied that I had every right to write her biography, just as she had every right to oppose it. His remark suggested that he felt he needed Sontag’s permission to release the board minutes—a curious position for the biographer of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn to adopt. After the meeting, I asked him: “What if I were writing a history of PEN? Would you still refuse me the minutes?” Changing the subject, he replied that he did not appreciate my hijacking the meeting to vent my personal grievances. Then a former PEN board member told me that in 1986 the board had gone on record stating that minutes would be available to any member who requested them. Finally, a member of PEN’s Freedom-to-Write Committee, told me that he was aghast that I had not received the minutes: “Our committee was all for you. Only PEN staff members were against approving your request.”

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 9, on page 3
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