National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Introduction of Stephen King, Recipient of the National Book Foundation's Medal for the DISTINGUISHED CONTRIBUTION TO AMERICAN LETTERS, 2003

Delivered by Walter Mosley

NEIL BALDWIN (Introducing Walter Mosley):

Good evening, everyone. Welcome to the National Book Awards. Before we begin the ceremony, I have some special welcomes to give. First of all, there are more than 900 people here and there are more than 125 authors in this room right now without whom there would be no National Book Awards. So I would like all of the authors to stand and be applauded. And don't be shy, every single one.

My second welcome is to all of our visitors from Bangor - I hope I got that right. Not "Banger," as I was told is incorrect. And we have many new guests here who have never been to a National Book Awards before and I wanted to say, especially to you, that I hope you will return many times in the future, take as many tables as you would like.

I'd like to thank Carolyn Reidy and Michael Selleck of Simon & Schuster, because they published this beautiful brochure which you all have on your tables. This brochure tells the story of the National Book Foundation and how we grew from a $5,000 pledge from Larry Hughes in 1989, which were our total assets - and that is true - to this. And so I urge you to read this story of the National Book Awards.

Speaking of stories, I would like to make a tremendous pitch for Walter Mosley's book, The Man In My Basement. This book is being published by Little, Brown in January and we have managed to - it wasn't very difficult - but we did manage to obtain some bound galleys from Little, Brown and we put them on your tables and we hope that you will take a look.

Walter has written a veritable page turner. I read this book in two days. And this is a page turner with a denouement that makes you really think. Walter Mosley is a prolific stylist with a purpose who crafts a great read and is also a dialectical philosopher. He dreams up memorable characters and then subjects them to the whims of his imagination. Walter is an observer of the current world situation and he's not afraid to map out a challenge for black people. Walter is a man who believes in "giving back". He served on the Board of the National Book Foundation for many years and he enriched our institution with humor and vision and devotion and his own funds.

Walter has been a tireless instigator and a cheerleader for me personally and I know many of the writers in this room owe a great deal to Walter's inspiration and encouragement. So when Walter inscribes books to me, he usually writes something like, "Here we go again," on the front page of the book. So in that spirit, I'd like to give an exceptionally warm welcome to our Master of Ceremonies, Walter Mosley.


Walter Mosle,yPhoto Credit: Anthony Barbosa

Thank you. Thank you very much. Hello everybody. I'm really, really, really, really, really, really happy and really honored to be here tonight for a lot of reasons, you know, one my long affiliation with the National Book Awards, my commitment to understanding that in order to change the world, you have to become part of it, and becoming part of the National Book Awards was a wonderful thing for me. Working to make things different and seeing how willing people were to make things different made me very happy.

Of course, you know, the National Book Foundation, we all know, gives awards to writers. But actually, the National Book Foundation is such an incredibly important and wonderful organization because it's so committed to literacy and to literature and to reading and to making the wonderful writers of America available to people who are not always able to get to those writers. It's just, really a wonderful organization and I've always been happy to be affiliated with it.

The other day I was in Idaho and I got a call from Neil Baldwin, which was kind of funny, to be in Idaho and get a call from the National Book Foundation. You go, what, you know? And he says, well, I want you to be the host, we've decided you're going to be the host. And the first thing I said to him was what I'm saying to you tonight, "but I'm not funny." I'm not Calvin Trillin, I'm not Wendy Wasserstein. I'm certainly not Steve Martin. That's just not going to happen. But he said no, we really want you here. We really want you here to come and to be a part of it and to represent it. So I said, all right, I'll do that, I'll come here and do this.

So I was given a couple of jobs and one of the jobs, of course, is to introduce the man that we're honoring tonight, Stephen King, which I thought was very wonderful. It's a big challenge to me because, in order to be able to say something about this wonderful writer, this wonderful man, this wonderful character in our literary landscape was a big thing and it took me quite a few months to write these three pages. Actually, it took more time to write these three pages than at least a couple of the novels that I've written.

I was standing outside - I have a little thing I'm going to read about him, I like reading things - but I was standing outside and somebody, a friend of Mr. King's was saying, "You know, he's very honored to receive this award. He's feeling very honored." And I went, "Really?" And they said, "Yeah." And I said, "You know, the honor is really ours." It's really for the National Book Awards, don't you think? Mr. King has done all the work and now we're capitalizing on that work. That's just the way it is, that's what we do. And that's okay. But it's not a question of we're honoring him, but we're getting a lot more from it in many, many ways, some of them monetary but most of them spiritual.

You have to think about that, when people are supporting you. It's wonderful when you get to that moment in your career. I haven't gotten there yet. I love it, how Neil said that I give my money to the National Book Foundation. I think it's very important that people invest in who we are. I think it's important that you people are here tonight. I think it is important that we are investing in the National Book Awards because this is the life of publishing here. This is the life of what we're doing. If we don't support ourselves, it's not going to get there.

One of the reasons I read things is because I'm not so good as to say all the important things that are in my head off the top. It is an honor and a pleasure for me to introduce the recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. It's a blessing that this recipient is Stephen King. There is no writer in America more worthy of recognition for his contributions to literature, to literacy and for his generosity to writers.

This mark of distinction is not only meant for Mr. King, however, but it is also a tribute to his readers and his connection to their world. Most of the great writers throughout history have been extraordinarily popular. These writers range from Homer to the nameless author of Beowulf to Shakespeare to Dickens to Mark Twain. They have told magical tales of brutality and grace and of sinners and redemption to the common man and woman. They tell us stories about our lives and the forces, either real or metaphorical, that govern those lives.

Greatness in literature is anchored in the experience of the age and then later judged by the depth of that experience. Universities do not dictate this greatness. Day laborers and seamstresses do. Political movements do not define the value of this literature because a well-told tale lives on in spite of the censor and the zealot.

Because I believe these words, I realize that all I have to do to present Mr. King is to talk about his work. It's no surprise we live in dark times, extraordinarily dark times. Malignant forces roam free in the land and threaten us in our daily lives. These modern day horrors come from the most pedestrian, the every day aspects of our lives, the mailbox, the airplane, gas in our cars, our buses and subways, even our paychecks.

There is famine and war and terrorism throughout the world. There are also random acts of inexplicable violence in the workplace and in schools. The existence of these dangers causes an equally dangerous reaction in us. We limit our own freedoms and send our children off to die while our prisons are overflowing with myriad responses to hopelessness.

Most of us are conscious of how alone and small and unprotected we are. Maybe this has always been true but lately, we've been forced to face our frailties. Cambodia is not so far away as it once was, nor Rwanda nor Bosnia. Like the victims of these far-off and, for most of us, almost mythical places, we have very few heroes, very few chronicles to tell us what to expect or how to act. It sounds like one kind of Stephen King novel, a story of horrendous challenges that we may not all survive.

Not a story about great generals or superhuman secret agents armed to the teeth with the finest weaponry and training. Not the selective history lessons taught in substandard schools but a story about losing a wife, a child or a friend, about an unemployed carpenter or an alcoholic housewife or a small boy, hectored by bullies until he is ready to commit murder or suicide. A story about looking in the mirror and seeing something that no one else sees. It's a story about everyday people finding heroes in their own hearts or maybe next door.

Mr. King's novels are inhabited by people with everyday jobs and average bodies, people who have to try to find extraordinary strength when they've never been anything but ordinary. Stephen King once said that daily life is the frame that makes the picture. His commitment, as I see it, is to celebrate and empower the everyday man and woman as they buy aspirin and cope with cancer. He takes our daily lives and makes them into something heroic. He takes our world, validates our distrust of it and then helps us to see that there's a chance to transcend the muck. He tells us that even if we fail in our struggles, we are still worthy enough to pass on our energies in the survival of humanity.

Mr. King's phenomenal popularity is due to his almost instinctual understanding of the fears that form the psyche of America's working class. He knows fear. And not the fear of demonic forces alone but also of loneliness and poverty, of hunger and the unknown we have to breach in order to survive. We go with him to the Wal-Mart and to the mechanic who always charges $600 no matter why you went there. He shares with us the awesome reverence for life, that magical formula that not even the most arrogant scientist or cleric or critic would date to define.

Tonight we honor Stephen King, our Everyman and our guide. Giving this award to him is also recognizing and celebrating the millions of readers who are transported, elated and given hope by his pedestrian heroes in a world where anything can and does happen.

I'd like to ask Deborah Wiley, Chairman of the Board of the National Book Foundation, to come up onto the stage and to make the formal presentation of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Stephen King. And Mr. King, would you please join us on the stage?