National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches
Carol Oates, Winner of the 1970 FICTION
AWARD for Them
Writing fiction today sometimes seems
an exercise in stubbornness and an anachronistic gesture
that goes against the shrill tenets of the age-that
only the present has meaning, that the contemplative
life is irrelevant, that only the life of purest sensation
is divine, and that the act of giving shape to sensation,
of giving a permanence to the present, is somehow an
inversion of the life principle itself. But writers
of prose are tough, meticulous people, dedicated to
a systematic analysis of the life of sensation and of
the electronic paradise that threatens to make language
itself obsolete. Writers of prose are all historians,
dealing with the past. It is the legendary quality of
the past we are most interested in, the immediate past,
mysterious and profound, that feeds into the future.
It is writers who create history.
Today, there is a demand that the past
be obliterated. The style of the new decade is accelerated
and deathly; all this emphasis upon sensation, upon
a life altered by various drugs, is a speeding up of
the death. And inherent in the new generation's rejection
of the past is a rejection of the future, a rejection
of any extended period of time. This is all deathly,
an unconscious desire for death, for the end of consciousness.
The artists of America must resist the temptation to
give up the struggle for consciousness, to go down with
the age. It is very tempting for us, this disavowal
of intelligence, this sub-religious gesture of surrender
to the senses and emotions, to death. Writers of prose
and poetry are living in the most stimulating of times
today-if only they can survive.
Those of us who are also university teachers
can see clearly, in some of our best students, the dangers
of the new religion, of the ethic of the unconsciousness:
a certain aimlessness, a distrust, a fear of the future
that seems to them either forbidding or unimaginable.
Many of these students are both older and younger than
they should be-older because they have experienced a
great deal, younger because the experiences seem to
have flowed through them, meaning nothing. It is a mysterious
age, the present. It questions all meaning. Writers,
trying to make sense of the age, are also creating it,
and there is more need than ever for the contemplative
life, for an assessment of where we are going and where
we have come from. We need to withdraw from the age,
to make ourselves detached. The writer of prose is committed
to recreating the world through language, and he should
not be distracted from this task by even the most attractive
of temptations. The opposite of language is silence;
silence for human beings is death.
In novels I have written, I have tried to give a shape to certain obsessions of mid-century Americans: a confusion of love and money, of the categories of public and private experience, of a demonic urge I sense all around me, an urge to violence as the answer to all problems, an urge to self-annihilation, suicide, the ultimate experience, and the ultimate surrender. The use of language is all we have to pit against death and silence.