The 48th International PEN Congress (January 12-18, 1986) was a contentious affair. The event brought writers from countries around the world to New York City to discuss/dissect/examine “The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.” The theme itself sparked controversy among many invitees and others who complained of its ambiguity. But discord over the theme soon gave way to other imbroglios.
Norman Mailer, as President of PEN and one of the leading organizers, was at the center of just about every intellectual scuffle and participant complaint. His unilateral invitation of then Secretary of State George P. Shultz to deliver the opening remarks and inaugurate the congress drew widespread anger and vitriol. Shultz’s actual speech was disrupted by jeers, shouts, whistles and other expressions of protest.
As the week of panel discussions, readings, interviews, and parties progressed, a further controversy erupted over the lack of women panelists. Again, Mailer was widely blamed for this and a contingent of feminist writers was very vocal in denouncing him and, by extension, PEN for the female disparity.
In the months following the Congress, Norman Mailer was interviewed by Richard D. Heffner on the PBS show Open Mind. The interview is wide-ranging and not specifically about the PEN Congress but Heffner does ask Mailer about it and Mailer responds to some of the controversies. He takes particular umbrage with Betty Friedan, asserting that her protest over the lack of women panelists was more about grandstanding than about any serious affront to women writers. PEN is an honorable organization, he maintains, and in his opinion Friedan should know that and not besmirch it by accusing it of deliberately excluding women panelists.
You can watch and listen to the interviews here (parts I and II):
A young Salman Rushdie participated in the event later wrote about it for the New York Times Book Review: