National Book Awards Acceptance Speech

Philip Roth, Winner of the 1960 Fiction Winner for Goodbye, Columbus
March 23, 1960

I am honored and delighted, and I accept your award with the highest of spirits. I hesitate to say any more about myself, my writings, or the condition of letters in America. The spoken, if not the written word, of writers is in vogue these days, and what with all the pronouncements coming out of the symposiums, the writer’s conferences, the interviews, the ceremonies such as this one, I am loathe to make any pronouncements of my own. I’m not sure whether the writers really want to speak so much publicly or whether they feel obliged to. For years a fellow goes around being told, or telling himself, that nobody listens to him, that nobody cares about him, that he is the orphan of our culture, and then they ask him to make a speech. What can he do? He talks.

On the plane coming to New York I was reading about a symposium that Esquire Magazine held some months ago at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Three of our most talented novelists and one of our more energetic and talented critics were asked to talk on “The Condition and Function of the Writer in Contemporary American Society.” I’d like to quote, a little spottily, but I hope without doing too much injury to the parties concerned, from the symposium report. “… When asked what the panel thought was the effect of foundation grants to writers, there was a sort of miniature debate… Mailer passionately denounced the foundations… MacDonald asked if he knew what he was talking about… Ellison said he had been very kindly treated by the foundations… Mark Harris said that since the U.S. Government had sent him on an all-expenses paid year’s trip to Japan and the Far East, he had found it hard to think as badly of the government as he thought he ought. They bought you off, he implied.” Then on Hollywood: “Only a hero, like Faulkner in his early days in Hollywood, could resist being swayed by an involvement with mass culture, said Mailer and Harris. You had to ride with it, said MacDonald and Ellison, exploit it… You had to stay an outsider, Harris was saying, now a convert to Mailer’s outlawism. The argument proceeded, sparked by various questions from the floor…”

This seems to me— as I’m sure it even seemed to some of the writers quoted— a lot of moral perspiration about not a great deal. We hear the questions all the time. Should the writer teach English composition or shouldn’t he? Should the writer accept the money of some dead tycoon or shouldn’t he? Is it worse from a dead tycoon or a live tycoon? Should the writer smoke marijuana or shouldn’t he? Can he survive in New York? Is Yaddo bad for you? Should he have a telephone?… The concern is with writers instead of writing; the concern is with poses and postures, with etiquette, as if the manners of the writer ultimately determined the manner of the writing. But it seems to me that the decisions that quicken the spirit, or kill it, that denigrate a man, or honor him, are made on more intimate and crucial levels. We shouldn’t really have to suffer so much in public, I think, about what we look like. Our remarks on certain cultural occasions are sometimes more titillating than they are enlightening; more gossip for those who finally don’t care two hoots about books. All this talk about ourselves, all these symposiums and pronouncements… sometimes I have the feeling that everybody is out reading the interviews and nobody’s at home with the novels. “Should the writer?” “Can the writers?” “Is it the function of the writer in contemporary…?” Baloney! What questions! What a lightweight unnovelistic approach to human character! Imagine— should Jane Austen? Can Thomas Hardy? Is it the function of Sir Walter Scott…? As writers, and not as question-answerers, it is only in our worst moments that we display so simplified an attitude toward the multiplicity of human response and human possibility. Why should we permit our inquisitors to make us talk like the characters we create when art and understanding fail us?

“When the writer says yes, he is already beginning to lie.” This pronouncement was made at the first Esquire symposium, and I read yesterday that it was deemed worthy of repetition at the second. Twice spoken on our planet, and I still don’t understand it. Does it apply to writing? Once you leave the symposium, what do you do with it? How, in fact, does it apply to books? In War and Peace, does Tolstoy say yes or no? In Ulysses, does Joyce say yes or no? All this attitudinizing and formula-izing seems to me beside the point. I don’t mean to say that writers should not be allowed the prerogative every accountant has, to be for or against Dick Nixon, Jack Kennedy, Jack Paar, symposiums, murder, hipsters, bad prose, et cetera. I only mean to say— and here, alas, is my own pronouncement— that when the writer says no, he is beginning to lie. Outraged, despairing, skeptical, hating, the writer, when he contemplates, not the audience, but the reality, is also overjoyed. Henry James said, “There are a thousand ways of enjoying life, and that of the artist is one of the most innocent… it connects with the idea of pleasure.” And it does; not just the private pleasures of the craft, nor the public pleasures of recognition, but that strange pleasure that comes of examining human experience, liberated of dogma and pronouncement, unburdened of having to say yes or having to say no.

Philip Roth