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On April 25, Macmillan Publishers CEO John Sargent was honored with the PEN Award for Publishing, for "his fierce advocacy for the right to publish and for serving as a defender of publishers' and authors' intellectual property rights." (via pen.org. Read more.) Other honorees included acclaimed filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, The Women's March, and Stephen Sondheim, who won the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award.
At PEN Gala, Sargent Speaks to the First Amendment
The 2017 PEN Literary Gala, held on April 26 at the Museum of Natural History in New York, saw the publishing and nonprofit worlds come together in support of free speech. PEN president Andrew Solomon said the fundraiser was PEN's most successful to date, with nearly $2 million raised.
The publisher honoree was Macmillan CEO John Sargent, who spoke about the importance of the First Amendment to a room filled with authors such as Zadie Smith, Neil Gaiman, and Salman Rushdie. "For those of us who have made a living [in publishing]...defending the First Amendment, our choices are, by necessity, personal," Sargent said, adding that the amendment only referred to Congress's obligation to "make no law...abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," and that it does not even define what free speech is. "There is no guidance, and the obligation to follow the amendment is only moral."
In his address, Sargent stressed the importance of maintaining freedom of speech in an industry that is built upon its principles—even when the speech needing protection or publication does not align with publishers' personal politics. The argument touched on an issue that has proven divisive in publishing of late, especially surrounding the now-abandoned book deal between alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos and Simon & Schuster, but also applies to Macmillan imprint Henry Holt's decision to continue to publish the works of former Fox News anchor Bill O'Reilly after the network let him go in the wake of numerous sexual harassment allegations.
Sargent noted historical examples as well, pointing to how "demoralized" he was after Simon & Schuster pulled American Psycho in the 1980s and "the great respect" he felt after Rushdie and his publisher, Viking, "withstood the onslaught" of anger and threats from portions of the Islamic world over the publication of Rushdie's novel The Satanic Verses.
"There are fewer and fewer of us who decide on what to publish, not to publish or, very occasionally, what book to pull," Sargent said. He added that simply deferring to self-publishers and expecting them to publish works rooted in speech or ideology that those in the book industry don't agree with isn't enough—despite his personal political inclinations. "There is a steady drumbeat asserting that lines should be drawn...but unfortunately, the very act of drawing a line and making that decision runs counter to our obligations to defend free speech."
Others honored last night included Stephen Sondheim, who actress Meryl Streep presented with the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award; the 2017 Women's March, awarded with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Award; and the imprisoned Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov, who was awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.