Boycotts, Bestsellers, and Banned Books

This was the panel that I was on, which makes it sort of difficult to write about.

I do want to say that Michael Moore—the Chair of the PEN Translation Committee—did a fantastic job organizing and moderating this panel. He provided a lot of information about the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the recent attempt to block the publication of books from Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, and the PEN-instigated lawsuit to challenge this.

He also talked about the Tariq Ramadan situation. Ramadan was denied a visa to teach at Notre Dame, and as a result PEN and the ACLU have filed a lawsuit, arguing that
American citizens have a First Amendment right to hear his ideas.

Helene Atwan from Beacon Press was great on the panel, telling many interesting, occasionally depressing, stories. She talked about publishing a nonfiction book by a foreign journalist that sold nowhere near as well as a book by an American journalist, and she also told of an over-ambitious copyeditor who transformed a wonderfully odd piece of fiction into a book that read like it was written by a dull American writer.

Jill Schoolman was wonderful as well, talking about her experiences publishing Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury, and her surprise that American reviewers weren’t as critical and dismissive as certain UK reviewers.

Personally, I didn’t have a lot to add, although I was able to tell my story about receiving an e-mail from the Department of Homeland Security requesting a copy of Dubravka Ugresic’s Thank You for Not Reading . . .

The main ideas that came out of this panel was the belief that American have a right to be exposed to viewpoints and ideas from other cultures, and that it’s the responsibility of publishers to make this possible. And that PEN is doing a remarkable job helping to protect the right of free speech.

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