Here is the nonsurprise of the new year: Two full days before their international writers' meeting opened yesterday at the New York Public Library, members of PEN got themselves into a nice little political snit. It seems that Norman Mailer, president of PEN's American Center, had the gall to invite Secretary of State George Shultz to address the opening session and that Shultz, into the bargain, had the gall to accept. Well! You could have knocked certain writers over with a quill.
Steaming with righteousness, Galway Kinnell, the previous president of American PEN, gave Mailer what for: "I am completely opposed to having the secretary of state attend the congress and be a principal speaker. Even if I agreed with this administration, which I do not, I would still oppose a high official of the government participating in an international writers' meeting." Then along came -- talk about nonsurprises -- E.L. Doctorow, fuming that with the invitation PEN had "betrayed its charter" and had lain down "at the feet of the most ideologically right-wing administration this country has yet seen."
That's a considerable feat of the imagination, stretching an invitation to the secretary of state into an act of political servility, but the safest bet this side of the Chicago Bears is that fanciful and self-righteous political theorizing will be much in evidence during the writers' conference this week. The theme of the meeting, "The Writer's Imagination and the Imagination of the State," has politics written all over it -- both actual politics and literary politics -- and even if it did not, many of the members of American PEN almost certainly would find a way to make it political.
This is not because PEN is itself a political organization -- to the contrary, it claims in its official statements to be nonpolitical -- but because when two or more writers are gathered together they seem incapable of keeping silent on what they imagine to be the great issues of the day. Three years ago, it may be recalled, several of them made pluperfect fools of themselves at a conference in Paris that was ostensibly devoted to "Creation and Development" but actually was a forum for virulent anti-Americanism, both political and cultural. Presumably this week's gathering will be less noisy and self-parodic than that one, since the French Ministry of Culture is not on hand to egg the writers on; but you can bet the rent that political noises will be made.
Indeed, it will be interesting to see precisely what sort of noises they turn out to be. Of the 700 writers from 45 countries in attendance, many will express legitimate and painful grievances: censorship, intimidation, oppression, imprisonment. In Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, in right-wing dictatorships and communist satellites alike, the state suppresses writers as vigorously as it suppresses other citizens -- all the more so because they are writers and because the free word is a threat to the totalitarian state. Though it is difficult to imagine that airing these grievances in New York's literary hothouse will do much to alleviate them back home, at least the writers have a forum from which to speak to the rest of the world and to one another.
But what are the American writers to say? Surely they will not wish to represent themselves as less oppressed than their counterparts in distant climes; surely they will not wish to be wallflowers at their own ball. Though the testimony of writers from totalitarian states should leave them counting their blessings, it is not in the nature of many highly visible American writers to do so. Thus we can expect the ritualistic condemnations of Ronald Reagan and his crowd -- "the most ideologically right-wing administration this country has yet seen," to borrow a phrase -- and Yankee imperialism and Coca-Cola diplomacy and all the usual suspects. No doubt someone will figure out a way to excoriate the publishing industry before the proceedings grind to a close, and perhaps there will even be, as there were in Paris, a few unkind words about "Dallas."
There will be a lot of this, and no doubt all of it will tinkle prettily in the ear, but the sum of it will be insignificant. In the court of world opinion American writers have only one legitimate grievance, one complaint against the state that really matters, and the irony is that its effects are felt far more by writers elsewhere than by American writers themselves. This of course is the McCarran-Walter Act, the pernicious law of 1952 under which the government has the authority to bar from the country persons whom it deems to be of a "subversive" nature. The law, a throwback to the days of Joe McCarthy, has been used to keep many men and women out of the United States, not merely as prospective citizens but also as lecturers and visitors, and many of them have been writers.
As it happens, PEN's record on McCarran-Walter is honorable. It negotiated with the State Department to permit some writers to attend this conference who might otherwise have been excluded under the act, and it has expressed its strong support for the act's repeal. Though that is unlikely to take place in the current political climate, PEN members who wish to speak out at this conference could do worse than to point out that a country representing itself as free and democratic cannot be entirely either so long as it excludes people from its shores whose convictions it finds distasteful. McCarran-Walter may be a minor embarrassment by comparison with what writers have undergone in Argentine prisons and Siberian camps, but it is an embarrassment all the same; if the American representatives at PEN cannot control the urge to cry mea patria culpa!, then this is the issue over which the cry should be made.
Otherwise, though, the most diplomatic and seemly course the American hosts can follow is to stay in the background: to be mannerly and deferential, and to let the delegates from elsewhere have their time in the news columns and television shows. American writers may have complaints, but with the singular exception of McCarran-Walter, they do not have grievances. They may not like Ronald Reagan, but he does not seem to be trying to tell them what to write, to deny them an audience or to throw them in jail. That being the case, why don't they give the rest of us a vacation and shut up for a few days? There will be ample time for talk of "the most ideologically right-wing administration" after their guests have gone home.