PEN is mighty, but needs to recruit new generation of writers

The typewriter, glasses, pencil and other items used by U.S. Nobel Prize in Literature winner Ernest Hemingway in 1939, are exhibited at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Havana, on June 16, 2011.

It's a crisp, cool morning at Hotel Bel-Air, in West Los Angeles. White swans greet a small group of writers and arts patrons. They sip coffee, nibble brioche, and hear author Eric Lax talk about his new book. It's a live breakfast reading for PEN.

Lax says for writers, few groups are more prestigious.

"Every living Nobel Laureate is member of PEN, many Pulitzer prize winners," he says.

But the publishing industry is unrecognizable from when PEN started 40 years ago. With fewer books published, and fewer published books making profits, there are fewer full-time, published writers. To claim it truly represents the entire world of writing, PEN has had to expand.

"It includes journalists, it includes screenwriters, it includes bloggers," Lax says. "The writer is someone who puts words out there."

A very traditional format -- the live reading -- is still the best way to bring all kinds of writers together, says PEN Center USA program director Michelle Meyering. She has simply added the twist of fun, historic or culturally significant locations, like the famous hotel.

She says when a book is paired with a venue, writers "have the opportunity to experience literature and also see a part of their city."

The core mission of PEN is to support free speech around the world. Attracting the next generation of members and donors is a challenge.

*Hayley Berlent, a brand strategist at the global firm Siegel+Gale, says many impressive, powerful nonprofits face this problem.

"Being premium is a good thing, it's an honor, but it can seem distant," she says.

Younger creative activist types seek more personal experiences, and direct connections. They tend to associate "big" with "bureaucracy."

Why join some nameless, faceless organization "when I can go online through my personal network, see the impact firsthand, touch it firsthand," Berent asks.

A recent PEN reading got very personal. Gathered at a bar, authors read work on the theme "Love Sucks." Los Angeles writer Zoe Ruiz read about an unexpected Valentine's Day encounter:

"Princess Donna had on a short black skirt and a tight black top. Her boobs were pushed up and spilling out. I said: Oh. I paused and blushed...."

The room was dark. The story got racier as it went along. What did this have to do with staid, luminous PEN? Simple, said program director Michelle Meyering: Supporting true freedom of speech. 

*CORRECTION: The original version of this article misspelled the name of brand strategist Hayley Berlent and her firm Siegel+Gale. The text has been corrected.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.

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