PEN America cancels awards ceremony amid backlash to stance on Israel-Hamas war

Solea Pfeiffer performs onstage during the 60th annual PEN America Literary Awards on March 02, 2023 in New York City.
PEN America canceled its annual Literary Awards ceremony following backlash to its response to the Israel-Hamas war. The organization announced a handful of winners after several nominees withdrew from consideration in protest. (Arturo Holmes / Getty Images)

Following criticism of the organization’s response to the Israel-Hamas war, PEN America has canceled its annual awards ceremony recognizing outstanding literature.

Of the 61 authors and translators nominated for the prestigious awards, 28 withdrew their books from consideration ahead of the event, which was set to be held April 29 at the Town Hall in New York City. Nine of the 10 nominees for the top recognition, the PEN/Jean Stein Book Award and its $75,000 prize, withdrew from consideration.

“We greatly respect that writers have followed their consciences, whether they chose to remain as nominees in their respective categories or not,” Rosaz Shariyf, PEN America’s literary programming chief officer, said in a statement Monday. “We regret that this unprecedented situation has taken away the spotlight from the extraordinary work selected by esteemed, insightful and hard-working judges across all categories. As an organization dedicated to freedom of expression and writers, our commitment to recognizing and honoring outstanding authors and the literary community is steadfast.”

Read more: Israeli-Palestinian conflict spills over into letters and firings in the arts

The nonprofit known for its protection of free expression in literature and its focus on human rights has come under fire for its response to the Israel-Hamas war. In an open letter signed by more than 1,400 writers and members of the literary community, including Roxane Gay and Naomi Klein, the group called the organization’s response “silent, tepid, neither-here-nor-there, self-congratulatory middle of the road.”

Signatories said the organization wasn’t living up to its mission of “protecting, platforming and amplifying those writers made most marginalized by nefarious forces,” and called for the organization to disband, should it not address the letter's concerns.

On Oct. 10, three days after Hamas attacked Israel, PEN America released a statement that said the organization “deplores the premeditated and vicious attack launched against Israeli civilians.”

The org has since put out more than 35 statements about the conflict, many condemning the loss of life in Gaza or offering support to pro-Palestinian writers and groups on college campuses. It also created an emergency fund of $100,000 to support Palestinian writers. Many critics said the fund was too small and found fault with the organization’s call for a cease-fire in March, which came five months after the start of the war.

Read more: 14 essential books for understanding the Israel-Hamas war, according to experts

PEN announced Monday that “Soil,” by Camille T. Dungy, the only remaining nominee, was awarded the Stein award. Jean Stein’s estate requested that PEN America donate the prize money to the Palestine Children’s Relief Fund, writing that Stein was a “passionate advocate for Palestinian rights who published, supported and celebrated Palestinian writers and visual artists.”

“While she established the PEN America award in her name to bring attention to and provide meaningful support to writers of the highest literary achievement, we know she would have respected the stance and sacrifice of the writers who have withdrawn from contention this year,” said the statement from Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Wendy Vanden Heuvel and Bill Clegg, on behalf of her estate.

Among the handful of finalists were Javier Fuentes, who won the PEN/Hemingway Award for Debut Novel for “Countries of Origin.” Playwright Tony Kushner will also still be honored with the PEN/Mike Nichols Writing for Performance Award for his body of work, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning play “Angels in America.”

PEN’s other spring events — the World Voices festivals in New York and Los Angeles, and the gala at the American Museum of Natural History — will proceed as scheduled, according to the Associated Press.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.