NEW YORK — It is billed, simply, as "the broadest encounter between American and foreign authors ever assembled."
Indeed, among the 1,000 or more writers from around the world expected to converge here at the 48th International PEN Conference next Jan. 12-18 are many of the leading names in contemporary literature.
V.S. Naipaul, Czeslaw Milosz, Italo Calvino, Guenter Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Iris Murdoch, Alice Munro, Graham Greene: Joining these well-known writers, conference officials hope, will be such honored guests as China's Ba Jin, Leopold Senghor from Senegal, Amos Oz from Israel and, from South Africa, Breyten Breytenbach and J. M. Coetzee.
Invitations have gone out also, PEN reports, to exiled Czechoslovakian writer Milan Kundera, Tadeus Konwicki of Poland, Hungary's George Konrad and Danilo Kis of Yugoslavia. Other writers who have been asked to attend the congress include Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru; exiled Cubans Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Heberto Padilla; and Anthony Burgess, Harold Pinter and Antonia Fraser of Great Britain.
And, in an unusual approach to fund-raising, conference organizer Norman Mailer, president of the PEN American Center in New York and "the force behind" the forthcoming congress, has joined with fellow novelists William Styron and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. to prevail upon such other prominent American writers as Woody Allen, Saul Bellow, Eudora Welty, William F. Buckley Jr., Joan Didion, John Irving, James Michener, Arthur Miller, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Susan Sontag, John Updike, Tom Wolfe and Gore Vidal to take part in a series of "literary evenings" in New York this fall. At $1,000, the subscription costs for this series of eight Sunday sessions will help defray the projected $500,000-plus cost of the conference.
While bringing writers together "to communicate with each other about their common circumstances as writers" is one objective of the conference, so is an ongoing examination of the meeting's theme, "The Writer's Imagination and the Imagination of the State." Writers Donald Barthelme and Richard Howard were responsible for devising the theme.
What is "the connection between the private dream and the public dream?" the conferees will ask in round-table discussions that participants hope will be more substantive than esoteric. Or, "since an international community of writers has been forged in this century," they will inquire into "the responsibility of the writer in the mid-'80s to national communication and global communication."
Along the same lines, other subjects for discussion will be how the writer can "seize the attention" of his government, how the writer in exile can contribute to his adopted nation, how "the imagination of a state" manifests itself and "what is the conflict between a writer's national consciousness and his international consciousness?"
"Writers need an international intellectual Olympics," said Philip Balla, a spokesman for the PEN American Center.
And, organizer Mailer has agreed in discussing the obviously political nature of the meeting's theme, "PEN was founded on the attractive notion that writers speak across national boundaries more gracefully and instinctively than governments. So regardless of how condemnatory we may be of any given society, when writers get together there is more of a real possibility that new solutions, even surprisingly creative solutions, can be found."
Politics are not only an inevitable ingredient of such a gathering, said poet/author/priest Malcolm Boyd, president of the PEN Center in Los Angeles, but also an essential one. "Writers are an endangered species," Boyd said. "Amnesty International informs us that numberless writers are imprisoned and even subject to torture under multiple governments throughout the world. And just as bad as authoritarianism is conformism, making rigorous demands on individualism and free expression.
"The poetic focus and stance is one way of looking at the world," Boyd continued. "The linear, repressive, bureaucratic, commonplace is another. The significance of the New York conference is that a significant number of creative people will be brought into one gathering with a poetic focus and stance.
"If the pen is mightier than the sword," Boyd said, "then the time has come to prove it."
PEN spokesman Balla said that writers from around the world had been "pushing for" a New York congress since 1966, the date of the last New York conference. Similar meetings were held here also in 1924 and 1939.
Composed of poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists, translators and editors from around the world, PEN was founded by John Galsworthy in 1921 with the intention of "fostering the exchange between nations of their literatures and to preserving the freedom of the writer and the integrity of the written word everywhere in the world."