The PEN literary gala, a fancy fundraising dinner held under the whale in the Natural History Museum, is sort of like publishing’s prom. Editors who are there to pad out the tables their respective houses have purchased, borrow something black-tie and try to pretend that they’re at ease hobnobbing alongside Tina Brown and the kind of heavily bejeweled, taut-faced ladies who attend this type of benefit a couple times a week. For an hour before the dinner, people mill around the T. Rex in the lobby politely refusing passed hors d’ouvres, drinking free drinks, and whispering ‘Omigod is that Toni Morrison‘ to their friends (It was!).
Morrison was being honored with the PEN/Borders Literary Service Award. The night’s other honorees included U.S. Veterans Administration nurse Laura Berg, who was investigated for sedition because she criticized the Bush administration’s handling of Hurricane Katrina, Chinese writer Yang Tongyan (pen name Yang Tianshui– pictured), and Kho Tararith and the Nou Hach Literary Project of Cambodia. They got the First Amendment award, the Freedom to Write award and the Freedom to Publish award, respectively. One magazine editor I talked to had tried to bone up on Yang Tongyan’s work before the ceremony, but had been unable to find anything online that wasn’t in Chinese. “I bet there are less than 10 people in this room who’ve read his work,” he mused. Well, yeah.
I wasn’t about to be a jerk and ask any of the famous people there what their favorite Yang Tongyan poem was. Those famous people included: Gary Shteyngart, Gay Talese, Frank McCourt, David Remnick, Michael Gross, and Dave Zinczenko. Oh and yes, Tina Brown — in a black dress, looking super hot.