PEN American Center

PEN American Center is the oldest human rights organization and the oldest literary organization.  There mission is to advance literature to the world.  Great group.

Every year they have people who are supporters open their homes to authors from around the world, have a dinner (the cost of the ticket goes directly to PEN) which give people the opportunity to meet authors in intimate settings, ask questions and talk about their books. 

This will be the second year that I have attended one of these events.  The author at the event I attended was Kiran Desai whose book The Inheritance of Loss won the Booker Prize in 2006.  Written over seven years, the book tells the story of a unhappy judge living out the rest of his life in India when his granddaughter appears on the scene after losing her parents.  We learn about the history of both of those characters, the teachers that teach her, the young boy she dates who is involved with Nepalese insurgents, the servant and his son who is attempting to make a better life for himself in the US.  I walked away from the book learning a lot about the diversity of Indian life, the poor vs. the rich, political parties, etc.  Really well written.  This book is worth reading today as much as it will be worth reading 20 years ago.  A gem. 

It was interesting to hear the author talk about her book.  Kiran was raised in India, still has relatives in the area she wrote about but has lived in the states longer than she lived in India.  She talked about the response to her book in India.  The difficulty of being a writer, like a Salman Rushdie, who has written about controversial topics that are received very differently in the states vs. overseas.  Yet her discussions about how India is changing were intriguing.  There are now book clubs, people are buying literature, there interest, freedoms and wealth.  The most interesting statistic is that in India to be a best seller  you only have to sell 3000 books.  3000 books in a country of a billion people.  In the US you have to sell much much more. 

As interesting as the event is, I would make some suggestions to PEN.  Perhaps they do this but here are my suggestions.  Send out a form to the hosts to follow.  Cocktails at 730, dinner promptly at 815.  One plate to serve for dinner that has everything on it, not a 4 course meal.  Make it casual.  Have a list of possible suggestions to lead the party to ask the author about. If it is going fine, then let the questions roll.  Begin the questions after the meal has been laid out in front of each person after about 15 minutes.  People are able to eat and talk during a meal to the author.  Let the author know what will be expected and questions that might come up.  Move the meal along at a quick pace so that the majority of time you are sitting down to dinner everyone is talking as a group with the author.  Otherwise, some guests end up sitting down next to someone they don’t know and talking for hours about a variety of topics that might or might not be of interest.  It starts to become uncomfortable with pauses in the conversations.  People are there to hear and speak with the author.  That is what they paid for.

Again, that is my observation at this particular event but I have heard that from other people at other PEN events.  This is an event about the author, not a dinner party.  We are there because we support PEN but also because we are interested in literature.  Our particular event did not start really engaging the author until 10:20 at night.  At 10:45 people were exhausted.  By 11 pm, I had enough.  As much as I could have listened to this delightful woman speak for hours, I couldn’t focus.  I was just thinking about crawling into bed.