Freedom of Expression

A chat with David Haglund, Editor of PEN America


David Haglund is the Managing Editor of PEN America, the literary magazine published by PEN American Center. He has written articles and reviews for Slate, The London Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, and other publications, and serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and as the poetry editor of Dialogue. He studied English and American literature at the University of Chicago and Oxford and he has taught literature and writing at Harvard, Oxford, and Hunter College.

Interview by Becky Tuch


PEN America has been around for 10 years. How has the journal changed or evolved over this time?

The journal has always tried to reflect and embody the work and mission of PEN American Center, but over the years this has taken different forms. One of the big changes occurred in 2005, with the arrival of the PEN World Voices Festival, a week-long series of literary events that now happens every spring. PEN America now features many of the conversations that take place at the festival (edited and abridged for publication), as well as fiction, poetry, and essays by the festival’s participants.

While the journal continues to include both new writing and reprints, the balance has shifted in the last two years toward new work. In earlier issues we frequently excerpted books that had won PEN awards; we still do so occasionally, but these days we’re more likely to ask the winner of a PEN award to send us something new, if possible.

Also, a number of our earlier issues feature pieces written for the tributes to writers that PEN used to hold a few times each year. In issues 1-6 you’ll find Marilynne Robinson on Proust, Stanley Crouch on Flannery O’Connor, Bill Clinton (!) on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and many more. PEN still occasionally honors writers with similar events, but they happen less often now.

In what ways do the art and literature published in PEN America reflect the mission of PEN American Center (defending human rights, freedom of speech and freedom of expression)?

The journal reflects the mission of PEN in several different ways. One of PEN’s founding principles is that literature can speak across national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries—and in order for it to do so, we need to support and promote work in translation. So we publish a lot of translated writing in every issue, much of which has been supported financially by grants from the PEN Translation Fund.

We also publish winners and finalists of the PEN Prison Writing Contest, an annual competition for men and women who are incarcerated in the United States. (The PEN Prison Writing Program also provides one-on-one mentorship and distributes a handbook for writing in prison.)

And we feature work by writers who are or have been jailed or otherwise persecuted for their writing. In PEN America 11: Make Believe, for instance, we published poems by Liu Xiaobo, who had then recently been detained by the Chinese government for his writings in support of democratic reform. We asked Jeffrey Yang, a recent recipient of the PEN/Osterweil Award for Poetry, to translate them for us. After they were published, they were read at rallies for Liu Xiaobo by several members of PEN -- including Paul Auster, Don DeLillo, E.L. Doctorow, and Edward Albee. Those recordings were recorded and posted online, where they were watched and listened to by thousands of people. Jeffrey’s translations were also reprinted in a few different venues. A year later, Liu Xiaobo received the Nobel Peace Prize. Jeffrey is now translating a collection of Liu Xiaobo’s poetry for Graywolf Press.

Do individual issues of PEN America ever respond to major world events (i.e. economic collapse, 9/11, civil wars), or does the journal aim to reflect ongoing issues of human rights, in general?

More the latter than the former. We only come out twice a year, so it’s difficult for us to be timely. That said, we do try to reflect what’s going on in the world—our tenth issue, Fear Itself, was partly a response to the economic collapse and other contemporary crises. In PEN America 9: Checkpoints, we included a short essay by an Iraqi interpreter who had been relocated in the United States with the help of PEN, after he and his family became targets for extremists in Baghdad. That issue also included part of a play about interpreters in Iraq by the journalist George Packer.

PEN America boasts a hardy backlist of authors including Susan Sontag, Russell Banks, Don Delillo, John Ashbery, Patti Smith, and Jonathan Lethem, and those are just the American ones! If I am a writer you’ve never heard of, and I haven’t published a book, do I stand a chance on getting my work published in PEN America? Be honest!

We do accept unsolicited submissions, but publishing new work by emerging writers is not our chief mission. Because we devote most of each issue to writing that’s connected fairly directly with the work of PEN American Center, there’s not a lot of room left over for other pieces.

What are the criteria for the works you select to be published?

The first criteria is always simply how much we enjoy a piece of writing. And most of what we publish reflects the mission of PEN in some way. We also have themes for each issue, so once we’ve selected a theme we do keep an eye out for pieces that pick up on it in some way -- but we try not to be too restrictive in that regard.

Let’s say I have one story set in South Africa and one story set in the United States. Assuming they’re both brilliant, would you have an editorial preference for the one set in South Africa? Or does it really depend on what happens in the story, what the outcome is, and so forth?

We don’t have any editorial preference for particular settings—or even particular plots or outcomes. We’re much more interested in the quality of the writing—we look for lively prose, for writing that makes us feel something, writing that’s formally inventive, that’s insightful, funny, and so on.

Are there other literary magazines you feel are similar to PEN America, either in the type of work they publish or the political ambitions of the journals?

I hope the best conversations we publish merit comparison to, for instance, the interviews published by BOMB and The Paris Review, albeit with a slightly different emphasis (more about the writer in the world, less about “the writer at work” —though that interests us, too). As a themed journal, we certainly pay attention to what Granta is doing. Witness, published by the Black Mountain Institute, has a mission not unlike that of PEN. And we certainly look to journals devoted to translation, like Two Lines and the online magazine Words Without Borders.

What sort of work would you like to see more of in the submissions you receive? What would you like to see less of?

I would love to see more unsolicited translations. And I’d love to see more work that is formally playful—that blurs the boundaries of fiction and poetry and nonfiction; a lot of the unsolicited work we receive is fairly conventional in its ambitions—which doesn’t mean it isn’t good, but it’s always nice to be surprised. We don’t publish book reviews, traditional literary criticism, or straightforward interviews (though we’ll often publish writers in conversation), so I’d prefer not to see any more submissions of same. It’s been said many times, but it’s worth saying again: writers should always read a journal extensively before sending its editors their work.

Recently there has been a stir in the literary community over the gender bias in publishing. Studies show that men get published much more frequently and their books are reviewed more often. Since PEN does so much great work toward freedom of speech and freedom of expression, it seems that the silencing of women’s voices would be an issue of great concern. And certainly this is not a new phenomenon! Can you shed some light on this issue from the perspective of your organization?

We certainly think about this—in fact, our newest issue, PEN America 14: The Good Books, includes a somewhat notorious dust-up from the 1986 PEN Congress, at which Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, Nadine Gordimer and others drew up a statement protesting the lack of women writers on many panel discussions. We also try to include writers from all over the world—not just the United States and Europe but Africa, Asia, the Middle East, South America.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading PEN America?

Mostly I hope they enjoy it—even though PEN has a very serious mission, we try not to be simply dutiful, but to publish writing that people will be excited about and find compelling, insightful, humorous, and so on. I also hope readers will find writing in translation they didn’t know about before and ideas in the conversations we include and the forums we now publish at the front of each issue.

Interviewer Becky Tuch is the Founding Editor of The Review Review.