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From the Floor: A Conversation with Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, and Norman Mailer

This exchange took place at the closing session of the 48th Congress of International PEN, and appears in PEN America 14: The Good Books. For more on the Congress, see Salman Rushdie’s introduction.

GRACE PALEY: This conference opened on Sunday. By Wednesday, many women had begun to talk to each other, in absolute amazement and perplexity, about the fact that in almost every panel, in many panels, there were only men speaking. So that’s what we heard, day after day, or panel after panel, with an occasional female voice. And we really were so shocked by it. So by Wednesday, people came together. It’s been said that I organized this, but that’s because people always like to say a person did it, you know; there was no “a person” in this, there were maybe twenty-five persons speaking to each other at almost the same time who did it. And a meeting was called for yesterday.

At this meeting, in about an hour and a half, and with considerable pressure from the outside to get out of this room—at almost every fifteen minutes we were pressed to do so—with all of that pressure, about one hundred and twenty-five, one hundred and fifty women created a statement. With a lot of noise and a lot of hollering, Meredith Tax and several other women sat there and wrote out one sentence after another. We voted on each sentence, then wrote the next sentence. I think it’s kind of miraculous—and it speaks to the gifts of our gender. People who listened kept saying, “You people are so disorganized, you sound so noisy and crazy”—you know the way they talk to us. But with all that noise and so forth, we came out with a statement that nearly all of us agreed on, and which seemed somewhat decent to me. And I’m going to read it:

We protest the state of the imagination of the PEN International Congress, 1986. We protest the underrepresentation of women on the panels and in the readings. Although nearly half the PEN members attending the conference are women, out of 117 panelists, only 16 are women.

These figures are wrong, but they’re not wrong by much.

We are outraged at PEN’s failure to invite more women writers from all parts of the world to be panelists and readers and moderators at this conference discussing the imagination of the state. There are many women writers of international stature both in the US and abroad who could have spoken to the issues addressed by the panels. PEN must be an organization which works to eradicate inequities, and should not perpetuate them within its own structure. We demand, from Norman Mailer, president of the American Center of PEN, and from the officers of PEN, a public explanation to the members of this congress for this failure. We expect that PEN will take immediate steps to remedy this situation in the ongoing structure of American and International PEN. We are forming a committee of inquiry to investigate the structure of PEN itself and its failure to include enough women writers. We demand that this committee be recognized, and that its work be facilitated by PEN.

We are glad for, and thank you for, the offer of time at this plenary session, Friday, January 17, and hope there will be time for other people to discuss this.

I want to say one more thing beyond this. Although we really turned out, I think, a pretty decent statement, we were neglectful in some respects, because as much as I and all of us—and I think many men, too, because men aren’t always against having women around—as much as I felt the tiresomeness of, as I said the other day, the continuous drone of the grown-up male voice, as much as we missed just our own female voices now and then, so did we really miss dark colors among the members of this panel. And we want to include in our protest the failure of having enough people of color, enough black, Hispanic, and Asian people.

MARGARET ATWOOD: I am president of the Anglophone section of PEN Canada. In concert with the Francophone section we will be holding the conference in 1989, and I will promise you right now that our conference will not only be bilingual, but also bisexual.

I’ve been asked to represent a category entitled “Foreign Women at this Event.” I first declined, my reason being that I was not foreign enough. It’s like the time I was at Harvard Graduate School—I throw that in to demonstrate that I have at least a smear of intellectual respectability—and a kind woman invited me to a party for foreign students and asked me to wear my native costume. This is it.

In other words, I feel absurd doing this, but the fact that it ended up being me, all attempts at finding a substitute having failed—and Isabel Allende, who would have been much more suitable, having gone home—emphasizes the nature and extent of the problem here. There just wasn’t a great deal to choose from. Only eight out of fifty-one of the guests of honor were women, and of these, three were Canadian, and therefore just as unsuitable as me, and for the rest, several were unavailable.

Let me make it clear that I have no personal or national ax to grind. I experienced the delight of actually sitting on a panel. Quelle joie! And it was a panel that was almost 50 percent female. I also gave a reading. My country was represented by four guests of honor, three of whom were women. The fourth was Robertson Davies, who I’m sure was selected because he was considered to be equal to any three women in beauty and accomplishment.

But the fact is that my country and my panel were glaring exceptions in this respect. On the subject of equality—I was asked to do this, as I’ve said, because there wasn’t much choice, and it’s this lack of choice that I’m speaking to—I represent an absence. “We need someone to do it who will be equal to the men,” I was also told. Which men? I wondered. And how many at once? I don’t mind having to be equal to four or five men, but one hundred and seventeen is a pretty tall order. And I wouldn’t have minded having a little help.

I hope that at future PEN congresses things will be so arranged that I will not be asked to make a speech of this kind, whether I’m suitable or not. Sixteen out of a hundred and seventeen panelists is a mere 14 percent by my count; that’s about as good as the Oxford Book of Welsh Verse, which starts in the twelfth century. This is the twentieth. Surely we at PEN should recognize that fact.

NORMAN MAILER: Let me clarify a few things before I come to the degree of mea culpa. To begin with, the guests of honor were chosen by three committees, essentially. The selection committee happens to have had four men and four women. The program committee had six men and four women. The planning committee had six men and six women. The people on these committees worked in varying degrees; some worked harder than others. The notion, from the beginning, was to get the very best writers we could. For this, I will take complete responsibility.

Several times in conversation, it was brought up that in a certain country we did not have a guest of honor who was a woman. Because, frankly, there were a great many writers I knew nothing about, I said, “Who does the committee think are really good writers who are women in that country?” And the answer would be, “Well, there really aren’t any.” Now, that may be terribly unpleasant to a lot of you, but there are countries in the world where there are no good women writers. And there’s a reason for it.

May I please go on? There is a reason for it, which is that there are countries where women are still very exploited. And exploited people do not have the leisure and the education and the surplus of energy to become good writers. [SHOUTS FROM FLOOR.] You can disrupt this meeting if you wish, but you’ll gain very little, because if this meeting is disrupted, you’ll gain only the media rubble that will fall upon us.

Much has been made of the remark I made yesterday, that there are few women who are intellectuals and novelists and poets. Now, I was not trying to say that there are not a great many women who are intellectuals. I’d be a fool to make that remark. One can look at the roster of the faculty of any college, and see that there must be—in most colleges it must be close to 50/50. In many high places of learning there are more women intellectuals than men. That’s not the point. The point is that someone who is an intellectual and an artist is rare. It’s a rare phenomenon. It doesn’t happen often. I can’t think of too many truly talented women in America who would fit into the category of Susan Sontag, who is an intellectual and a literary artist. There are not too many.

Now, you can name a few. I will read for you a list of the women we invited who did not come. In America, those women were Mary McCarthy, who certainly would have qualified, Ann Beattie, Diana Trilling, who would have qualified, Amy Clampitt, Eudora Welty, Francine du Plessix Gray, who would have qualified. If you don’t like the word “qualified,” give me another word. I really am not going to fight for the word. If I may go on—Anne Tyler, Barbara Tuchman, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sharon Olds, Alice Walker, Carolyn Forché, Ntozake Shange, Helen Vendler, and Ursula Le Guin.

Now, these are all women who turned us down. I don’t know their reasons. It could have been anything from disaffection with PEN or with the leadership of PEN, to personal matters, to a book they were working on. But we were turned down by a great many women. Among foreign writers, we were turned down by Iris Murdoch, Marguerite Duras, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir, Marguerite Yourcenar, Elsa Morante, Mavis Gallant, Wislawa Szymborska, Christa Wolf, Elena Poniatowska. It comes to a total of twenty-four women who chose not to come. I will take responsibility for the fact that we then didn’t keep going and searching and searching and searching for more and more and more women. We didn’t go searching for more and more and more men. We wanted the best writers we could get. We did not want a congress that would establish a political point at the cost of considerable mediocrity. [PROTESTS FROM THE FLOOR.] And I will stand by this.

And I will stand by it to the point of adding a further remark. There is a dialectic—and I would advance that word to you, because the word is going out of American life, and many of you pretend to be members of the left and you don’t even know what the dialectic is. There’s a dialectic between justice and excellence. If it were a matter of blacks getting into a construction union, I’d say, by all means let us have a quota, because this involves people learning a better trade and being able to make a better living. But you are all middle-class women, as I am a middle-class man, and in the middle class—if I may finish—the center of activity is obligatory excellence. There’s no excuse for the middle class if they don’t become progressively more excellent. I will take full responsibility for the list we ended up with. And I’ll take it without bitterness but with the whimsy, in my own heart, that there were six months for everyone to complain, and you did choose the week of the congress to come down. [SHOUTS FROM THE FLOOR.]