Robert D. Sutherland



An eye-witness account and critique of an important event immediately ridiculed and downplayed by the main-stream media and therefore quickly forgotten by the general public (published in The POST-AMERIKAN, v. 10, #7, pp. 16-17)

On October 9―12, 1981, I attended the first American Writers Congress since 1941, held at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. Sponsored by the Nation Foundation (associated with The Nation magazine), the Congress was called because of a crisis facing writers, publishing, and freedom of expression. The nationwide call to the Congress says: “Rapidly advancing concentration in the communications industry threatens as never before to exclude and silence serious writers who are out of political or literary fashion. Now writers find it more and more difficult to publish, and even established writers are subject to...’the censorship of slow-moving books.’
Government support for the arts is being slashed. Attacks on writers―libel suits, book  bannings, censorship by government and special interest groups―are increasing all across the country.”

Responding to the call, 4,000 assorted novelists, poets, journalists, publishers, playwrights, critics, scholars and freelancers swarmed into the Roosevelt Hotel at 44th and Madison Avenue and for three days participated in panels, workshops, roundtables, and caucuses, examining writers’ rights, bread-and-butter issues, threats to freedom of expression, and the role of writing and writers in the U.S. of the 1980’s. On Sunday night, Oct. 11, a plenary session attended by 1,200 people considered and voted on resolutions which had been generated by Action Workshops or submitted by independent groups on the weight of fifty signatures.

In addition to bringing writers together to discuss their common concerns, the Congress was called to establish a foundation for future action and to create a network for communication and mutual support; to promote certain shared principles; and to issue these as public statements to the nation at large―serving notice on the government, the conglomerate-controlled publishers, the Moral Majority, etc., that writers were becoming an organized force to assert themselves and defend the free flow of information.

Notable participants
To suggest the scope of the participation, I’ll list some of the notable people who took part in various aspects of the Congress: Ai, James Baldwin, Imamu Amiri Baraka (LeRoi Jones), E. L. Doctorow, Martin Duberman, Dierdre English, Jules Feiffer, Marilyn Hacker, Nat Hentoff, Abbie Hoffman, Phyllis Janik, June Jordan, Herbert Kohl, Meridel Le Sueur, Denise Levertov, Karen Malpede, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Helena Quintana, Ishmael Reed, Wendy Rose, Sonia Sanchez, Lydia Sargent, Mary Lee Settle, Goria Steinem, Studs Terkel, Kurt Vonnegut, and Celeste West.

Panels and workshops
The Congress opened Friday night with keynote addresses by Meridel Le Sueur, poet and political activist born in 1900, who provided a historical perspective on the previous writers’ congresses of the 1930’s, and by Toni Morrison, an editor at Random House, who said that the only way that writers would be taken seriously by the power structure, the conglomerate publishers, and the mainstream media would be for them to develop a unified voice through organization. On Saturday and Sunday, there were a variety of keynote panels―”The Writer in American Society,” “Concentration and Conglomerates: The Political Economy of Culture,” “How the Culture Industry Shapes the Culture”―and over fifty workshops and interest groups, many of which were meeting simultaneously in various parts of the hotel and in nearby buildings. A sampling of these will indicate the range of topics and suggest the flavor of the sessions: “Language as Ideology.” “The Challenge of Black Literature in the 1980’s.” “Why a Union? Problems and Possibilities.” “The Book Wars: Local Censorship of Language and ideas.” “Libel as a Political Weapon.” “Federal Control of Information and the National Security State.” “Homophobia in the New York Times.” “Writers and Social Responsibility.” “Small Presses: Where We’ve Been and Where We’re Going.” “Writers and the Academy.” “The Politics of ‘Cultural America’.” “The Hostile Environment for the Asian-American Writer.” “Censorship and Commercialism: Writing for Television.” “Ideology, Truth, and Self-Censorship.” “Working-Class Writing.” “Self-Publishing and Distribution.” “Feminist Literature: The Interplay of Art and Politics Emerging in Fiction, Poetry, and Plays by Women.” “The Media and U.S. Foreign Policy.” “The Future of Investigative Reporting.” “Latino Writing.” “The Politics of Literacy.”

At the plenary session on Sunday night, some 37 resolutions were presented for delegates’ votes. Highlights: The Congress endorsed the principle of a Writers’ Union (which a union-organizing group will try to create); passed an affirmation of First Amendment rights; mandated the Continuations Committee to defend the free flow of expression and information by establishing an ongoing body to monitor and mobilize opposition to legislative, executive, and judicial action that threatens First Amendment rights. The delegates voted to oppose Administration efforts to exempt intelligence and other Federal agencies from the Freedom of Information Act and to weaken its compliance standards; denounced the government’s attempts to broaden domestic and foreign intelligence powers; opposed the Agent Identities Protection Act which prohibits publication of unclassified information about intelligence agencies.

The Congress resolved: That a national alliance of writers’ organizations be formed; that publishers be required to bear the legal costs of libel suits brought against writers; that lesbian and gay male writers of all colors have the right to have their history, news, cultural events, and contributions accurately and fairly reported; to have access to jobs, and have their workers’ rights on those job be protected. That a Task Force be established to organize a Literature Defense Network to insure that censorship―whether political or economic, by publishers, distributors, booksellers, or special interest groups―be opposed. That the Congress defend the literatures and right to be heard of all ethnic minorities and nationally-oppressed peoples. That the Congress declare opposition to all attempts to imprison, detain, harass, ban, or murder any person for his or her expression of belief, and to all attempts to ban or censor writing.

Resolutions passed to protest the imprisonment of a long list of writers by their respective governments. To oppose the U.S. government’s sanctioning suppression of culture in Latin America through its support of dictatorial regimes in the name of “national security.” To protest the U.S. media blackout of peace proposals generated by Panama, Nicaragua, and Salvadoran liberationists to end the war in El Salvador and to demand the cessation of U.S. military and economic aid to the current government in El Salvador until all Salvadoran journalists and writers now in jail are set free. And (from the Black Writers’ Caucus) to protest apartheid in South Africa by having the U.S. cease all trade with South Africa and deny all military and economic aid to the South African government (giving it instead to the liberation groups opposing apartheid): by boycotting all writers, entertainers, media people, sports figures, and artists who go to South Africa or who by word or deed lend credibility to South Africa’s attempts to end its isolation or enhance its international image. (There were a great many other provisions in this resolution. The wording caused a lot of trouble for the delegates, for it seemed to contradict the spirit of some of the other resolutions passed; but, after much heated discussion and its being rewritten on the floor, the resolution passed by a parliamentary fluke.)

These resolutions, which I’ve listed in almost verbatim form (so as not to distort them), accurately represent the tone of the Congress. Media coverage of the Congress has been slanted as one would expect. The New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Washington Post (and its subsidiary Newsweek magazine) have (predictably) treated the Congress in an arch and cavalier fashion―attempting to denigrate, trivialize, and ridicule it. Not surprising, for Conglomerate Media were seen by the Congress as one face of The Enemy. Clearly, some of the attitudes and positions formally adopted by the Congress are threatening to the power brokers. The mainstream media can be counted on to propagandize against the effectiveness of the Congress’ work.

Personal impressions
It’s hard to say what will be accomplished by the Writers Congress. A Continuations Committee of broad membership is authorized to implement the resolutions, create coordinating structures, make public statements, and support regional networks and alliances. It remains to be seen whether a Writers’ Union can be built; the difficulties in developing an organization on a “trade union model” (as was discussed) are great.
Writers have traditionally been independent (and isolated) laborers―working sometimes for themselves, sometimes for employers, sometimes on a one-to-one contractual basis for a publisher who hopes to profit from their work; they are accustomed to working alone and negotiating in isolation. This has allowed them to be exploited and victimized. Will a trade union model be possible for organizing workers as diverse as poets, freelance non-fiction writers, playwrights, novelists, and scholarly critics? Yet screenwriters have organized, and professional journalists. And Writers Organizations of various types have been created in Canada, Great Britain, Sweden, and Chile.

One of the important accomplishments of the Congress is that it happened: that, for the first time since 1941, a large number of writers in diverse fields came together to share their concerns, air their grievances, proclaim their convictions, and declare their intention to stand together in the face of a perceived onslaught of threats to freedom of inquiry and expression. From what was said in panel discussions, keynote addresses, workshops, and personal conversations, it is clear that the writers in attendance were concerned not only with the bread-and-butter issues of economic survival, fair contracts, effective distribution, and political leverage―but also with defending minority rights, opposing oppression, and self-defining the role of the writer in contributing to the health of an increasingly commercialized and conformist culture.

Political? Of course. The fact of the Congress is political. How could it be otherwise? The battle lines were drawn in the invitational call. The very atmosphere was charged. Imagine: 4,000 opinionated and egocentric people, self-conceived (and culturally defined) as individualists, jammed into a hotel unable to handle the crowd; the elevators always stuffed like matchboxes; the poetry readings and plenary sessions with 1,200 crammed into the ballrooms in violation of the fire code (1,000 turned away at the doors); leafletters thrusting pamphlets and appeals into people’s hands; the hallways lined with tables filled with giveaways―flyers, newsletters, broadsides, manifestoes, calls to action of every progressive hue; mobs wandering the corridors in search of vanishing workshops; groups of two or three huddled in corners thrashing out the wording of their resolutions; press conferences and caucuses continually abuzz...And always the frustration of being able to attend only one workshop when three others―equally interesting―are meeting at the same time....

There was confusion, abrupt rescheduling of time and meeting-place of workshops, overcrowding, heat and inconvenience. Yet the organizers by and large did a remarkable job coordinating the activities and pulling it off given the unexpectedly large turnout in a building that simply couldn’t handle the crush (there were at least two other groups meeting there beside the writers: the Quiet Birdmen (I never found out who they were―paunchy cigar-smokers for the most part, taking up lots of elevator space and standing three deep at the bar) and―what ho!―the Army War College hosting a flock of naval officers from Brazil.) And of course there were the infiltrators, the surveillancers―FBI, CIA, who-knows-what―whose paranoia is as great as the paranoia of the writer-delegates. And, in this case, just as well-founded. (Lots of photographs were taken from the balconies.)

But my general impression of the proceedings―despite the irritations, the complaints, the heated debates―was one of good humor, of celebration. Yet, for all the T-shirts, posters, buttons, bourbon and balloons, the Writers Congress was not a
three-ring circus as the New York Times and Newsweek would have you believe. Oh no. Don’t believe it for a minute. Something important happened at the Roosevelt that weekend. And the Times and Newsweek know it too.


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