Garrison Keillor (host): It’s my honor to introduce for the purpose of introducing somebody else a woman of letters who has written just about everything that a person can write. She’s written poems and fiction. She has written plays, plays that are actually produced. She’s written screen plays that are actually produced, “Fresh Kill,” and has written fiction. In fact, she has sat in a dark room, as many of you are sitting here tonight, and waited for her name to be announced as a nominee for the National Book Awards. Unfortunately, it was not a book with a really award winning title. It was a great book but Dogeaters? Gangster of Love. Better title. Please welcome Jessica Hagedorn. [Applause]
Jessica Hagedorn (introducing Lawrence Ferlinghetti): He’s a funny man. That’s Minnesota for you. Good evening, everyone. This year, the National Book Foundation decided to create the Literarian Award in order to recognize and honor the people who have dedicated their lives to loving, nurturing, publishing and making great literature available to a wider audience in America. I feel an enormous sense of hometown pride in introducing tonight’s recipient of this award. He is a beloved poet and prolific author, a visionary publisher, and after all these years, still the hippest and coolest bookseller around. [Applause]
Yeah. Coney Island of the Mind his best known, best selling collection of poetry is considered a modern classic. He founded City Lights, the legendary San Francisco bookstore in 1953 with Peter Martin. Soon after, he launched City Lights Publishing House. His courageous publication and defense of Allen Ginsburg’sHowl led to his arrest on obscenity charges. The trial and his subsequent acquittal brought national attention to the San Francisco renaissance and the literary movement known as the Beats. As you can read in the program, this historic First Amendment case established a legal precedent for the publication of controversial work.
I was 15 years old, fresh off the boat from the Philippines, when the poet, Kenneth Rexroth, took me on my first outing to City Lights in North Beach, a glamorous, grown up, and to my feverish teenage mind, delightfully dangerous destination. I’ll never forget that it was close to midnight, yet the cozy, colorful bookstore was humming with activity. Scruffy bohemian types lounged about downstairs, browsing through the paperback books and the latest issues of Umbra andEvergreen Review. The friendly staff didn’t seem to feel the need to pressure anyone into buying. Poetry by Lorca, Neruda, Mayakovsky, Apollinaire, plays by Samuel Beckett and LeRoy Jones, novels by Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey and James Baldwin, William Burroughs. Quite a boys’ club, right?
Teenage me was in heaven. After that first night, I kept going back, sometimes alone or with one or two likeminded book-loving teenage rebel pals. City Lights was our haven, a sort of funky alternative school for kids like us who dreamed of becoming writers and artists. The welcoming beautiful energy in this independent unpretentious first class bookstore has much to do with the poet and activist who is its public face. To this day, City Lights remains a vibrant San Francisco literary landmark and a Mecca for writers and readers from all over the world. Thanks to his unflagging vision and generous open spirit, the Press continues to thrive, publishing a remarkable list of cutting edge authors while keeping many hard-to-find books in print.
Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation, it gives me great pleasure to present the first Literarian Award for outstanding service to the American literary community to Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti: For a while, I thought we were on “Prairie Home Companion”. I don’t have half the wit that Garrison does, that makes me a halfwit. Anyway, I am honored indeed and I’m also glad to have published a book by my introducer.
What is a “literarian” anyway? Sounds a bit old school, doesn’t it? A smart friend of mine said, “It’s for old guys.” Well, it’s for young guys of both sexes and many colors to carry forward the tradition of great literacy. I come from a New York generation which was before the Beat Generation, a generation that assumed that you would know the allusion when you referred to such things as Prufrock or Stephen Daedalus or Maud Gonne or Godot or Penelope’s unraveling her knitting at night or Dover Beach or Walden Pond or “lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d”. The absence of Third World writers, authors of color, from the list is shocking but, at that time, nobody even thought of such a thing back then, in the last white century.
Today it’s a cliché at this point. But faced with the dumbing down of America, the literarian is really an endangered species. It is not true that President Bush believes that anyone caught reading a book should be banned from government but the barbarians certainly are at the gates and our commercial dominant culture welcomes them. The dominant American mercantile culture may globalize the world but it is not the mainstream culture of our civilization. The true mainstream is made, not of oil but of literarians, publishers, bookstores, editors, libraries, writers and readers, universities and all the institutions that support them. That is the real mainstream of our civilization.
It will survive, if anything survives, after the electricity goes off and electronic civilization fades away, when Nature strikes back in retaliation for what the dominant culture is doing to it. Coming to your local theater soon, the day after tomorrow. See you at the show.
I’ll end with a poem I wrote just before 9/11:
Are there not still fireflies?
Are there not still fireflies?
Are there not still four leaf clovers?
Is not our land still beautiful, our cities
Never bombed by foreign invaders,
Never occupied by iron armies speaking iron
Are not our warriors still valiant, ready to defend
Are not our Senators still wearing fine togas?
Are we not still a great people in the greatest
country in all the world?
Is this not still a free country?
Are not our views still ours, our gardens still
full of flowers, our ships with full cargoes?
Why then do some still fear the barbarians coming,
coming, coming in their huddled masses?
What is that sound that fills the air, drumming,
Is not Rome still Rome?
Is not Los Angeles still Los Angeles?
Are these really the last days of the Roman Empire?
Is not beauty still beauty and truth still truth?
Are there not still poets? Are there not still
Are there not still mothers, sisters and brothers?
Is there not still a full moon once a month?
Are there not still fireflies?
Are there not still stars at night?
Can we not still see them in bold night signaling
to us our so-called manifest destinies?
Frank Lebowitz (host): To present this year’s medal for distinguished contribution to American letters is Mark Doty. Mark Doty is the author of seven books of poetry and three memoirs, including My Alexandria, which was a National Book Award finalist in 1993, and won both the National Book Critics Circle Award and Britain’s T.S. Eliot prize. He has also published Heaven’s Coast, a memoir, which won the PEN/Martha Albrand award for First Nonfiction, and has received fellowships from the Guggenheim, Ingram Merrill, Rockefeller, Whiting, and Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Foundation, as well as from the National Endowment for the Arts. It gives me great pleasure to welcome Mark Doty.
Mark Doty (introducing Adrienne Rich): I am now so nervous about my timing. Recently, I listened to a prominent literary critic speaking to a group of young poets, many of them my students in a graduate writing program. He told them that if they didn’t like the way things were being run in this country, the thing for them to do was to devote some time each week to organizing voters and advocating social change but to be sure to keep their political concerns out of their work. As it would do, and I quote, terrible damage to their poetry as it did to the poets of the 1970’s, end quote.
My first reaction was to think that my students should be so lucky for their work to be informed by such a clear, compassionate purpose. I was taken aback by the critic’s absolute certainty, his lack of a more nuanced or complex position, and then I thought, well, critics have probably been giving precisely that advice to poets since the beginning of literary time. And poets have been ignoring them and continuing to allow what ever was central to them to shape their poems.
Adrienne Rich has been brilliantly and challengingly pursuing her passions for some five decades now. And if my students seek an example of what happens when a poet follows what matters most to her, they need look no further. Her lived commitment to questioning and revealing the structures of power and how we live within them turns out to be the deep rock shelf under her work, as Rich put once in a great poem called “Transcendental Etude.” That rock shelf is the ground upon which she has founded a sustaining poetic, a life’s work but also, the ground upon which to build her profoundly generous gift to others, a deep public valuing of the common life. Walt Whitman wrote in the preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass that the proof of a poet was that he’d be absorbed into the affections of his country as firmly as he has absorbed it. A year later, after he had sold maybe two dozen copies of his book, he revised that sentence. He said, “The proof of a poet must be sternly deferred until he has been absorbed into the affections of his country.” Adrienne Rich’s volumes of poems and collections of essays I hardly need tell you have been showered by every award available to an American writer. Including the Pulitzer Prize, and that most lustrous of prizes, the National Book Award. This evening she receives the medal for distinguished contribution to American letters from the National Book Foundation. She joins Gwendolyn Brooks as the only poet ever to be so honored. Her poems are foundational texts of our time, and in the future when readers want to understand the great reconsideration of gender and power that reshaped American life in our moment, it is to Rich’s poems that they will turn. Now, I suppose this means that she has been absorbed in the way Whitman meant, but in truth that has never been her goal. She has remained a gadfly. A vigilant witness somehow both of the center and the margins of her age. When the Clinton White House invited her to come to Washington to accept a National Medal of Arts, she declined to accept an award from an administration she saw as abusing its powers. I don’t think I need to tell you that the current administration has not yet invited her to the White House. Her restless empathy for those not in positions of power, women, the poor, laborers, queer women and men, the immigrant, is the ethical basis of her art. And if the critic in his position of aesthetic purity believes that poems suffer from it then perhaps we have labored under a hobblingly narrow definition of poetry, a fiction of a realm in which words in their harmonies and shadings operate and are removed from the world in some sacred grove. That idyllic glen, if it ever existed, was entered by human traffic long ago. And where people live inequity resides. Rich has spent her entire career gazing into that difficult truth, into the well of the suffering other. Here then is an uncompromisingly moral poetry, it places the lives of others first; above beauty, above the old harmonies, above the desire for shapely resolution. In Adrienne Rich’s strong hands, the poem is an instrument for change, if we could see into the structures of power and take on the work of making a dream, the dream of a common language an actuality. As Whitman did, she calls us toward the country we could be, though she insists that we also acknowledge the country we are. There is a beautiful essay of Rilke’s called “The Vocation of the Poet” and in it, the German poet describes a journey to Egypt some time near the beginning of the 20th-century and how he saw there on the Nile an old-style boat rowed by many rowers. At its front sat a man with a drum facing the oarsmen, setting their pace. But in front of him sat someone else, a singer, whose job it was to face in the direction the boat was heading singing into the future. That is what Adrienne Rich has been doing over the long brave haul of a remarkable career. And through that singing she has helped us to see where we are and where we are heading. Her words given and given again have helped to make that future what it will be. She has lent a voice to what our best cells might make. Like Whitman, Rich has created her audience. Like her predecessor Muriel Rukeyser, she has spoken into a silence and readers have risen to her words awakened and changed. Please join me in saluting an essential American writer.
It’s a great pleasure to receive his medal from the fine poet Mark Doty. I am tremendously honored by the legacy of writers who have received this award, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Eudora Welty, Studs Terkel, Toni Morrison, writers who broke ground, worked against the grain, made other kinds of writing possible. I thank those who have helped me persevere. My publishers of 40 years, the venerable employee owned by WW Norton, my editor, Jill Bialosky, my literary agent, the great Frances Goldin, and my everywhere-enabling representative Steven Barclay. Above all my sons David, Pablo, and Jacob Conrad, and Michelle Cliff, my companion of 30 years.
In his 1821 essay “The Defense of Poetry,” Shelley claimed that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. Piously over- quoted, mostly out of context, this has been taken to suggest that simply by virtue of composing verse, poets exert some exemplary moral power in a vague, unthreatening way. In fact, in an earlier political essay, Shelley had written that poets and philosophers are “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” The philosophers he was talking about were revolutionary-minded Thomas Paine, William Godwin, Voltaire, Mary Wollstonecraft. And Shelley was, no mistake, out to change the legislation of his time. For him, there was no contradiction between poetry, political philosophy, and active confrontation with illegitimate authority. For him, art bore an integral relationship to the struggle between revolution and oppression. His west wind was the trumpet of a prophecy driving dead thoughts like withered leaves to quicken a new birth. He did not say poets are the unacknowledged interior decorators of the world.
I am both a poet and one of the everybodies of my country. I live in poetry and daily experience with manipulated fear, ignorance, cultural confusion, and social antagonism huddling together on the fault line of an empire. I hope never to idealize poetry. It has suffered enough from that. Poetry is not a healing lotion, an emotional massage, a kind of linguistic aromatherapy. Neither is it a blueprint, nor an instruction manual, nor a billboard. There is no universal poetry, anyway, only poetries and poetics, and the streaming intertwining histories to which they belong. There is room, indeed, necessity, for both Neruda and Cesar Vallejo, for Pier Paolo Pasolini and Alfonsina Storni, for Audre Lorde and Aime Cesaire, for both Ezra Pound and Nelly Sachs. Poetries are no more pure and simple than human histories are pure and simple. Poetry like silk, or coffee, or oil, or human flesh has had its trade routes, and there are colonized poetics and resilient poetics, transmissions across frontiers not easily traced. Poetry has sometimes been charged with aestheticizing, being complicit in the violent realities of power, of practices like collective punishment, torture, rape, and genocide. The accusation famously invoked in Adorno is “After the Holocaust lyric poetry is impossible,” which Adorno later retracted and which a succession of Jewish poets have in their practice rejected. But if poetry had gone mute after every genocide in history, there would be little poetry left in the world. If to aestheticize is to glide across brutality and cruelty, treat them merely as opportunities for the artist rather than structures of power, to be described and dismantled, much hangs on that word “merely.” Opportunism isn’t the same as committed attention. But we can also define the aesthetic not as a privileged and sequestered rendering of human suffering, but as news of an awareness, a resistance which totalizing systems want to quell, art reaching into us for what is still passionate, still unintimidated, still unquenched.
In North America, poetry has been written off on other counts. It is not a mass-market product. It doesn’t get sold on airport newsstands or in supermarket aisles. The actual consumption figures for poetry can’t be quantified at the checkout counter. It’s too difficult for the average mind. It’s too elite, but the wealthy don’t bid for it at Sotheby’s. It is, in short, redundant. This might be called the free market critique of poetry. There’s actually an odd correlation between these ideas. Poetry is either inadequate, even immoral in the face of human suffering, or it’s unprofitable, hence useless. Either way, poets are advised to hang our heads or fold our tents. Yet, in fact, throughout the world, transfusions of poetic language can and do quite literally keep bodies and souls together and more. Because when poetry lays its hand on our shoulder, we can be to an almost physical degree touched and moved. The imagination’s roads open again, giving the lie to that slammed and bolted door, that razor-wired fence, that brute dictum. There is no alternative. Of course, like the consciousness behind it, behind any art, a poem can be deep or shallow, glib or visionary, prescient or stuck in an already lagging trendiness. What’s pushing the grammar and syntax, the sounds, the images? Is it literalism, fundamentalism, professionalism — a stunted language? Or is the great muscle of metaphor drawing strength from resemblance in difference. Poetry has the capacity in its own ways and by its own means to remind us of something we are forbidden to see, a forgotten future, a still uncreated site whose moral architecture is founded not on ownership and dispossession, torture and bribes, outcast and tribe, but on the continuous redefining of freedom. That word now held in house arrest by the rhetoric of the free market. This ongoing future written-off over and over is still within view. All over the world its paths are being rediscovered and reinvented through collective action, through many kinds of art. And there’s always that in poetry, which will not be grasped, which cannot be described, which survives our ardent attention, our critical theories, our classrooms, our late-night arguments. There’s always (I’m quoting the poet-translator Americo Ferrari) an unspeakable where perhaps the nucleus of the living relation between the poem and the world resides.
Presented at the 2005 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 16, 2005
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York
Garrision Keillor (host): Toni Morrison has won so many awards and prizes it is easier to talk about the ones that she has not won like the Heisman Trophy, the Cy Young Award. To the best of my knowledge, at least, she has not. She has won this prize and the other one and the one named for Joseph Pulitzer and she has, of course, won the prize where the phone call comes in the morning from the guy with the Swedish accent. You must wonder which of your friends would be capable of doing this to you. This year it is 35 years since the publication of her first novel, The Bluest Eye. Please welcome Toni Morrison. [Applause]
Toni Morrison (introducing Norman Mailer): Thank you. Thank you. Actually, several people ought to be standing here next to me to complete this recognition of Norman Mailer’s career. No one perspective can voice or even successfully accomplish it. Certainly, there should be someone who experienced World War II. There should be another with very keen memories of the Vietnam era. A third who fell under the sway of Muhammad Ali. There should be a fourth who understood the interior void of a death row inmate, how attractive death is to a killer, even or especially if it is his own.
Such a collection of readers and writers who prize the carnivorous intelligence accompanied by huge and provocative talent would underscore what I believe to be simply undeniable, that the history of American literature in the 20th and early 21st century would be both depleted and inaccurate, minus the inclusion of the work of Norman Mailer. [Applause]
In fiction, nonfiction, polemic, literary criticism, he has plumbed war, Hollywood, the CIA, death row, politics, moon shots, his gaze as wide as his intellect is passionate. Well, loud and justifiable praises of his prowess as a writer, however, competes with some rather violent objections to some of his views. I have to say I have my own list of objections that I can peruse at my leisure, not least of which is an almost comic obtuseness regarding women and race, [Laughter, applause] which I have to say even he admits to.
But at the very least, excoriating this particular writer’s view is a battle worth engaging. It is not a pseudo-struggle with a sly dissembling antagonist who hides behind the pale pose of the mediocre. Norman Mailer is nothing if not a worthy adversary. If one thinks of America as a charged field, Mailer is one of its tallest lightning rods. It has always seemed to me that the body of his work is very much like the America he loves and chastens. Like the country, the man, the writer, is fascinated by the romance of violence. Like the country, he is confrontational in his despair of American military confrontations. Like the country, he is routinely disrespectful of borders, trespassing literary genre and classifications with glee, innovative, creating new vocabularies as he merges the traditional with the new. He is willing to dissect the imperial demands of his own ego while he deplores the demands of the national ego, endlessly confessional, offering his feelings and experiences to help educate and shape those of others.
Generous, intractable, often wrong, always engaged, mindful of and amused by his own power and his prodigious gifts, wide spirited. Like the nation itself, sui generis, a true original. I think you would agree that for a writer this prolific, this able with language, he should have the last word. So let me quote it. If, as he has said, “Writers are the marrow of the nation, its nutrient,” then as a nation, as readers, we are healthier, stronger, smarter, more resistant, perhaps even more honest because of him. Ladies and gentlemen, Norman Mailer.
Norman Mailer: It’s a curious night. First I was cursing Larry Ferlinghetti because he was saying all the things that I’m going to say and then I was being honored by Toni Morrison whose gift, I think, was to show me, since she was talking about me, her gift was to show me that I am obtuse about women. [Laughter] Which reminded me of my wife because my wife can hear 50 paeans of praise and one small criticism and all she will ever remember is the small criticism.
So I’m obtuse about women but wary of them. At any rate, I thank Toni Morrison for her prodigious generosity. On my best days, I have that high an opinion of myself but not on my worst ones.
Now, here comes the speech, the speech for which I cursed Ferlinghetti. Something interesting happened with this speech on the way to the occasion which is that I forgot it. We were ten minutes away from my home and I shrieked and said to my wife and one of my sons, “We have to go back. We have to go back. I put my speech in the wrong suit jacket.” It never happened to me before. May it never happen to me again.
All right. In these years, I’m feeling the woeful emotions of an old carriage maker as he watches the disappearance of his trade before the onrush of the automobile. The serious novel may soon be in danger of being adored with the
same poignant concern we feel for endangered species. There is all but unspoken shame in the literary world today. The passion readers used to feel for venturing into a serious novel has withered. Indeed, how many of you even in this audience do not obtain more pleasure from an egregiously cruel review of a good novel in the New York Times than from the art involved in reading that good but serious book?
Meanwhile, we are told that literacy is improving and more novels are being read than ever before. That may be true. It is just that the vast majority of such successful fiction is all too forgettable. The purpose of a great novel is not, however, to cater to one’s passing needs but to enter one’s life, even alter it. So the great novel will kill no time on airplane trips. They are not good page turners. They are in danger of becoming a footnote to our technological, cybernetic and advertising worlds.
Nature’s rude beast has appropriated the marketplace. The good serious novel, and most certainly, the rare great novel, is now inimical to the needs of this marketplace. The most dedicated novels of the future are lucky, therefore, to have the same lack of relation to the ambitions and greed of the world as fine poetry offers today. So too will the serious novel be seen as doing little harm provided it is kept on that high shelf we save for family whatnots.
If these gloomy predictions are correct, let us look at least at what we may be losing. Civilization has become a dangerous vehicle, hurtling toward a fate that could be dire. Is it not by now a giant who can no longer see? It is too blind in its ambitions and blind in its wars. Its great limbs do not coordinate with each other. Theology is one of those limbs, is helpless before the unanswered questions of the holocaust, even as formal religion insists on an all good and all powerful God. While fundamentalists are gung ho in their manic rush to godly judgment, liberals are in a state of woe before their increasing powerlessness.
The great light of the Enlightenment which fortified their sense of entitlement over the last three centuries is now a flickering light. The military would do well to become familiar with the works of Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí since war has become surrealist.
What then can a great novel offer such a world? It is possible that the novelist, if his or her talent is deep, may even unravel enigmas that major disciplines are not ready to approach. Our field, our ground, our illumination does not derive from disciplines which have hardened over the centuries to advancing one chosen field of inquiry at the expense of others. We are bound to no discipline but the development of our own experience or, if we are fortunate enough to find it, our vision. So a gifted few may even be ready to explore experience far into moral advances that are not available to other professions.
On the other hand, novelists are rarely heroic. Gawky, half formed, shy, perverse, spoiled, vain in their youth, so too can their vision be astigmatic. Nonetheless, the best do look to honor the profound demands of their profession by offering insights with which goodreaders can enrich themselves on the meaning of their lives. Whose comprehension of society is not more incisive after reading Proust?Who does not know more about language once James Joyce is encountered? Who says that compassion has not been deepened by living in Tolstoy’s novels?
So where are the future Tolstoys, the future Joyces, Dostoevskys, Prousts? In the interim, let me salute the award winners who are yet to be honored on this evening. May they startle us with the breadth and power of their vision. May there be a Theodore Dreiser or a Herman Melville among them. I would say thank you for this award you are giving me tonight and I would add one coda: Would the English nation have been as great in surviving without Shakespeare? Would Ireland be entering a period of prosperity today if not for James Joyce? Thank you.
Presented at the 2004 National Book Awards Ceremony and Dinner
November 17, 2004
New York Marriott Marquis, Times Square, New York, New York
Deborah E. Wiley, Chairman of the Board of Directors of National Book Foundation (introducing Judy Blume): Thank you, Garrison. And thank you Abby for such a wonderful reading.
One of the great pleasures of being the Chair of the National Book Foundation is having the honor of presenting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. This year is the first time the Foundation will bestow the Medal on a writer whose principal audience has been young readers, and whose work has made her one of the most influential and important writers in America.
Various authors desire different outcomes from their work, including fame, fortune, social influence, political change, love, and to leave an everlasting mark. Perhaps young adult writers have a special place for the last item on that list. Their books reach still-forming minds and have the opportunity to imprint themselves, to help these growing personalities over a few of the rough spots, to explain a bit about how the world works, and, perhaps most important, to be enchanters, to be literary alchemists, to be the sorcerer’s apprentice who takes the jumble of letters and words and sentences, and out of them creates lifelong readers.
Judy Blume is just such an artist and artisan. You see her readers on school buses and subways and in bookstores, their noses buried deep into Fudge or Superfudge or Tiger Eyes, or late at night when they are supposed to be asleep they huddle under the covers with a flashlight and speed through Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
Though boys often read her work, especially the Fudge books, it’s to girls she has spoken most powerfully. You can turn to your neighbor tonight and if she’s under 55 Judy Blume was one of her best friends from the ages of 9 to 13. If she’s over 55, Judy Blume was her daughter’s best friend in those years. Few writers in America have had such an enormous impact in encouraging children to be children and adolescents to be adolescents, and inspiring them to develop in their own ways, in their own time, in accordance with their own dreams.
Her individual works are among the most acclaimed books for young readers in the country. Blubber won the New York Times Outside Book of the Year, Tiger Eyes was an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults and won the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award. And in these perilous times, just two months ago, the American Library Association designated her as the second most censored author in America over the past fifteen years. She has taken up the gantlet of that censorship and dedicated her time, energy, fame and money to ensure that the written word will continue to be free and unfettered in our society.
On behalf of the Board of Directors, it gives me great pleasure to present the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters to Judy Blume.
Judy Blume: Thank you, everyone, thank you so much for being here and for your applause, making me feel so welcome. Abby, thank you for reading that passage [from Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret]so beautifully. Dick Jackson and I were holding hands remembering. And to Deborah and Harold and all the Members of the Board of the National Book Foundation, thank you so much for this great honor.
Garrison [to Garrison Keillor]– in my book, Summer Sisters, there are two young girls who call a guy they covet “The National Treasure.” But you truly are our national treasure. [Applause] And thank you for being with us tonight.
I can’t believe I’m standing here, as my family will tell you. This honor was so totally unexpected it left me speechless and for months I remained speechless, even knowing I would have to stand up here tonight and deliver a 15 to 20 minute speech. Yes, that’s how long it’s going to be before you get your main course.
Standing in this darkened room tonight, which is exactly how Stephen King described it to me, knowing that you’re all out there even if I can’t see you, I feel totally connected — to you, to those who have been honored with this award before me, to the nominees, to all the writers in this room, and especially to those who write for young people. By honoring me, the National Book Foundation is also honoring the community of children’s book writers and a more talented, hardworking group I’ve never met. I dedicate this beautiful medal to them – especially those who most inspired me when I was starting out: Beverly Cleary, Louise Fitzhugh and Elaine Konigsburg. [Applause]
I have my readers to thank for my career and not a day goes by that I don’t remember that. I doubt there’s a more loyal, supportive audience anywhere and almost from the start, as many of you know, they have written to me. So I wanted to share a couple of their earliest letters, which remain my favorites.
How do you do these books? Do you do them with your mind or do you use a kit?
Please send me the facts of life in number order.
My connection to books goes way back. Some of my earliest memories have to do with books. Sitting on the floor at the Elizabeth Public Library in New Jersey, not just turning the pages and pouring over the pictures but sniffing the books. I loved the way they smelled, like a warm, ripe blankey. When I got my first library card, I decided I would become a librarian — and it wasn’t just that librarians got to spend all day surrounded by books, it was that they had magical pencils, pencils with rubber stamps attached so you could write and stamp the date at almost the same time. I hope somebody here is old enough to remember those pencils. No one else had pencils like librarians.
I was a small, shy, anxious child with eczema, as fearful as Sheila the Great, as imaginative as Sally J. Freedman. I could play alone for hours, bouncing a pink Spalding ball against the side of our brick house, making up stories inside my head. One day I was a tough, gritty detective in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and the next, a double agent during World War II. Sometimes I was a surgeon amputating the arms and legs of my paper dolls, then taping them back together. My patients were eternally grateful.
I was always a storyteller, although no one ever told me I could grow up to become a writer, and it certainly never occurred to me. I never shared my stories but they were there as far back as I remember. In my early fantasies, I was Esther Williams, a movie star of my youth. (I hope somebody remembers her.) She could swim underwater and smile at the same time without ever getting water up her nose. This seemed totally amazing to me, a little girl who always kept one foot on the bottom of the pool just in case.
Though I was a reader — and I owned all the Oz books, bought Nancy Drew mysteries at the Ritz Bookshop for 25¢ apiece, and loved the Betsy-Tacy series — I never found my kind of reality in children’s books. No child was anything like me. No child thought the kinds of things I did, leading me to believe I definitely wasn’t normal — which my brother, who is here tonight, might say is true — so I thought I had better keep this inner life of mine a secret.
By sixth grade I had lost interest in children’s books so when it came time for book reports, I would make up a title, an author and a theme (I hated themes — I still hate themes) and I would stand up in front of the class and report on this imagined book. I must have been convincing because I always got an “A” on those reports, and when I reported on a book I’d actually read, I didn’t.
For the most part, I couldn’t report on the books I was actually reading because those were the books I found on my parents’ bookshelves: Saul Bellow’s The Adventures of Augie March, Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, Salinger’s the Catcher in the Rye and an illustrated copy of Lysistrata I found particularly interesting. I loved those books. I may not have understood everything in them but they gave me a glimpse into the secret world of adults which is what I was after, and I’ll always feel grateful and connected to those authors.
And then for a while in my twenties I became disconnected, not from books but from my inner life. I was married then with two small children, living in the suburbs of New Jersey. I adored my children but inside was an empty space, a gnawing, an ache that I couldn’t identify, one that I didn’t understand. The imaginative, creative child grows up and finds that real life, no matter how sweet, is missing some essential ingredient. I’m often asked how and why I began to write and I answer, “Out of desperation,” although now with “Desperate Housewives” on TV, I may have to rethink that. I was physically sick with one exotic illness after another in those years but once I started to write, my illnesses magically disappeared. I found an outlet for all that emotion, all that angst. Writing saved my life and it changed it forever.
When my first manuscript was returned with a letter of rejection, I hid in my closet and cried. “Does not win in competition with others,” was the reason checked off on the rejection form. I discovered rejection hurts; it can even be humiliating, but it doesn’t kill you. You still eat your supper, bathe your kids, go to sleep and get up again the next morning. Rejection only made me more determined. I stopped crying in my closet.
I didn’t know anyone who wrote or anyone who had ever written. I didn’t know anyone even remotely connected to the world of publishing. But I was a reader and by reading I learned to write. Why children’s books? It never occurred to me to write anything else. I’d always identified with children and I was so connected to the child I was, I remembered everything so vividly, that when I sat down to write Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, which is, by the way, my third book – we’ll forget the first two – Margaret spilled out spontaneously. And yes, for those of you who are wondering, I really did do those exercises, and no, they don’t work, at least not for me.
I had no agenda. I wanted only to write the best, the most honest books that I could. I hoped, I prayed, that some day I would be published, and later, that some day I might reach my audience. After two years of rejections, I was discovered in the slush pile at Bradbury Press by Dick Jackson. [Applause] You just don’t know; you can’t imagine being that lucky. Those who do know, understand that Dick is one of our most gifted editors. I hope I’m not going to embarrass him by saying this, but Dick is legendary in the world of children’s books. And he saw something in my early work – don’t ask me what — that made him take me on. He taught me well. He was gentle, wise and funny. He still is. Dick, thank you for being here with me tonight and thank you for believing in me all those years ago.
I was in a hurry in those days. Life in my family was short. I grew up sitting Shiva. Shaped by death, I was alternately fascinated, terrified and consumed by the ultimate ending. Like my mother in her later years, who on the day she finished knitting one sweater started another, sure that God would not take her in the middle of a sleeve — as soon as I finished one book, I started the next. I’m not in such a hurry now, though I know my mother would not want me to tell you that, just in case someone is listening.
Looking back, I believe that not knowing anything about writing or publishing worked in my favor. I was free to write just as I had been free to make up stories inside my head when I was nine years old. There were no rules. There was no critic on my shoulder taunting me, no censor warning me that I was heading for trouble.
My work has saved me when I was sure I couldn’t cope, when I was sure my personal life was falling apart. It’s given me a strength, an identity, a reason to keep going.
I think there must have been something in the water in Elizabeth, New Jersey because the town produced quite a few writers, Mickey Spillane for one – does anyone remember I, the Jury? My Uncle Bernie taught Mickey Spillane in high school. Do you remember when Mike Hammer discovered she was a real blonde after all? It took me a long time to figure that one out.
And just a few miles away in the Weequahic section of Newark was Philip Roth. I am more connected to Philip Roth than he will ever know and I’m not just another fan, although I surely am a fan. His mother and mine went to high school together in Elizabeth. When Wifey, my first novel for adults, was published, my mother ran into Mrs. Roth on the street. Mrs. Roth had some advice for my mother: “Look, Essie,” she said, “when they ask you how she knows all those things, you say, ‘I don’t know, but not from me’.”
When you write a sexy novel, old boyfriends crawl out of the woodwork and contact you. They’re all sure they missed out on something hot when they were teenagers. Believe me, they didn’t. My favorite Wifey letter, though, comes from a stranger:
You’re rude and crude, depraved and lewd
You’re caught in a moral crunch.
You’re vexed, perplexed and oversexed
So when can we have lunch?
How sweet it was in the first decade of my career.
But then my life as a writer took another turn, unexpected and frightening. I never dreamed my books would become a target of the censors. I mean, this is America, right? Aren’t we supposed to celebrate our intellectual freedom? That’s what my parents taught me. That’s what I learned in civics class in sixth grade, ironically, about the same time as the McCarthy hearings.
I’ve always believed that learning to think for yourself, learning to make intelligent, thoughtful decisions, is one of the most important parts of an education. So it makes me sad and very angry that encouraging young people to think for themselves is seen by some as subversive.
I never planned to become an activist but things happen. You either take action or you don’t. Standing up and speaking out for what you believe in — well, it feels a lot better than doing nothing. And while you’re doing it, you find out you’re not as alone as you thought you were.
I am proud to be able to introduce you tonight to my Fab Four – they don’t know I’m doing this – my Fab Four are tireless freedom fighters who work day after day to protect our First Amendment rights. I know they won’t want to, but I’m going to ask them to stand up anyway.
Joan Bertin, Executive Director of the National Coalition Against Censorship. [Applause] Please, please, if you’re not already members, join this most amazing organization. The newsletter alone will make you glad you did. And what a celebration we had last night for NCAC’s 30th birthday.
Chris Finan, President of ABFFE, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression. And if you haven’t already, please do sign the Reader’s Privacy Petition to amend the Patriot Act. It will be in the lobby as you leave.
Judith Krug, Director of the Office for Intellectual Freedom at the American Library Association. The first time I heard Judith speak I was wowed by her articulate, fearless stance on behalf of free speech. I am wowed every bit as much today.
Pat Scales. Pat is a librarian and teacher extraordinaire, who came all the way from Greenville, South Carolina to be with us tonight. It would take me all of my twenty minutes to tell you what Pat has done on behalf of Free Speech. But besides everything else, and one of the things I am always most impressed by, is that Pat teaches kids what the First Amendment means and what it would mean to lose those rights.
I can’t begin to thank these four for their commitment to writers, readers, students, teachers and librarians. I fear they are going to be busier than usual during the next four years and for years to come. You know, the urge to ban is contagious. It spreads like wildfire from community to community. If it happens at your school, your library, your theaters or museums, please speak out. Censors hate publicity.
I want to thank my long time publishers for their continuing support, especially the teams at Dutton, Penguin Putnam, Random House and S&S (Simon & Schuster) for keeping my books alive and well for so many years. And especially to Beverly Horowitz and Carol Baron. They’ve worked with me almost from the start and I thank them for their smart and savvy publishing and for being godmothers to my books.
Thank you, Owen Laster, my current agent. And I would like to remember Claire Smith, who guided my career for almost three decades. She would have loved this. My wonderful loving family is here with me tonight — my daughter Randy, my son Larry, my grandson Elliot, who said he would come tonight if he could sit next to Stephen King. Elliot, I wish I could have arranged that for you. Elliot is my inspiration, the light of my life. And you look handsome in your tux. My brother David is here, and my sister-in-law Maggie, and my dear, dear old friends who know me best. Thank you for sharing this moment with me.
Finally, to my husband, George, who I sometimes accuse of having wrecked my career because in our 25 years together I’ve been happy, and contentment isn’t nearly as good for writing as angst. I love You, You’re Perfect, Don’t Change!
And now, because this is where it all began and this is why I’m standing here tonight, one more letter:
My mom never talks to me about the things young girls think most about. She doesn’t know how I feel. I don’t know where I stand in the world. I don’t know who I am. That’s why I read. To find myself.
Elizabeth. Age 13.
And Elizabeth, wherever you are, you are the reason I continue to write.
Thank you. Thank you so much. [Applause] I told Elliot before we left tonight, “Elliot, this is a big night for me.” And it really is. Thanks to all of you for making me feel so warm.
Neil Baldwin (host): 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 Mosley (introducing Stephen King): 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?
Stephen King: Thank you very much. Thank you all. Thank you for the applause and thank you for coming. I’m delighted to be here but, as I’ve said before in the last five years, I’m delighted to be anywhere.
This isn’t in my speech so don’t take it out of my allotted time. There are some people who have spoken out passionately about giving me this medal. There are some people who think it’s an extraordinarily bad idea. There have been some people who have spoken out who think it’s an extraordinarily good idea. You know who you are and where you stand and most of you who are here tonight are on my side. I’m glad for that. But I want to say it doesn’t matter in a sense which side you were on. The people who speak out, speak out because they are passionate about the book, about the word, about the page and, in that sense, we’re all brothers and sisters. Give yourself a hand.
Now as for my remarks. The only person who understands how much this award means to me is my wife, Tabitha. I was a writer when I met her in 1967 but my only venue was the campus newspaper where I published a rude weekly column. It turned me into a bit of a celebrity but I was a poor one, scraping through college thanks to a jury-rigged package of loans and scholarships.
A friend of Tabitha Spruce pointed me out to her one winter day as I crossed the mall in my jeans and cut-down green rubber boots. I had a bushy black beard. I hadn’t had my hair cut in two years and I looked like Charlie Manson. My wife-to-be clasped her hands between her breasts and said, “I think I’m in love” in a tone dripping with sarcasm.
Tabby Spruce had no more money than I did but with sarcasm she was loaded. When we married in 1971, we already had one child. By the middle of 1972, we had a pair. I taught school and worked in a laundry during the summer. Tabby worked for Dunkin’ Donuts. When she was working, I took care of the kids. When I was working, it was vice versa. And writing was always an undisputed part of that work. Tabby finished the first book of our marriage, a slim but wonderful book of poetry called Grimoire.
This is a very atypical audience, one passionately dedicated to books and to the word. Most of the world, however, sees writing as a fairly useless occupation. I’ve even heard it called mental masturbation, once or twice by people in my family. I never heard that from my wife. She’d read my stuff and felt certain I’d some day support us by writing full time, instead of standing in front of a blackboard and spouting on about Jack London and Ogden Nash. She never made a big deal of this. It was just a fact of our lives. We lived in a trailer and she made a writing space for me in the tiny laundry room with a desk and her Olivetti portable between the washer and dryer. She still tells people I married her for that typewriter but that’s only partly true. I married her because I loved her and because we got on as well out of bed as in it. The typewriter was a factor, though.
When I gave up on Carrie, it was Tabby who rescued the first few pages of single spaced manuscript from the wastebasket, told me it was good, said I ought to go on. When I told her I didn’t know how to go on, she helped me out with the girls’ locker room stuff. There were no inspiring speeches. Tabby does sarcasm, Tabby doesn’t do inspiration, never has. It was just “this is pretty good, you ought to keep it going.” That was all I needed and she knew it.
There were some hard, dark years before Carrie. We had two kids and no money. We rotated the bills, paying on different ones each month. I kept our car, an old Buick, going with duct tape and bailing wire. It was a time when my wife might have been expected to say, “Why don’t you quit spending three hours a night in the laundry room, Steve, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer we can’t afford? Why don’t you get an actual job?”
Okay, this is the real stuff. If she’d asked, I almost certainly would have done it. And then am I standing up here tonight, making a speech, accepting the award, wearing a radar dish around my neck? Maybe. More likely not. In fact, the subject of moonlighting did come up once. The head of the English department where I taught told me that the debate club was going to need a new faculty advisor and he put me up for the job if I wanted. It would pay $300 per school year which doesn’t sound like much but my yearly take in 1973 was only $6,600 and $300 equaled ten weeks worth of groceries.
The English department head told me he’d need my decision by the end of the week. When I told Tabby about the opening, she asked if I’d still have time to write. I told her not as much. Her response to that was unequivocal, “Well then, you can’t take it.”
One of the few times during the early years of our marriage I saw my wife cry really hard was when I told her that a paperback publisher, New American Library, had paid a ton of money for the book she’d rescued from the trash. I could quit teaching, she could quit pushing crullers at Dunkin’ Donuts. She looked almost unbelieving for five seconds and then she put her hands over her face and she wept. When she finally stopped, we went into the living room and sat on our old couch, which Tabby had rescued from a yard sale, and talked into the early hours of the morning about what we were going to do with the money. I’ve never had a more pleasant conversation. I have never had one that felt more surreal.
My point is that Tabby always knew what I was supposed to be doing and she believed that I would succeed at it. There is a time in the lives of most writers when they are vulnerable, when the vivid dreams and ambitions of childhood seem to pale in the harsh sunlight of what we call the real world. In short, there’s a time when things can go either way.
That vulnerable time for me came during 1971 to 1973. If my wife had suggested to me even with love and kindness and gentleness rather than her more common wit and good natured sarcasm that the time had come to put my dreams away and support my family, I would have done that with no complaint. I believe that on some level of thought I was expecting to have that conversation. If she had suggested that you can’t buy a loaf of bread or a tube of toothpaste with rejection slips, I would have gone out and found a part time job.
Tabby has told me since that it never crossed her mind to have such a conversation. You had a second job, she said, in the laundry room with my typewriter. I hope you know, Tabby, that they are clapping for you and not for me. Stand up so they can see you, please. Thank you. Thank you. I did not let her see this speech, and I will hear about this later.
Now, there are lots of people who will tell you that anyone who writes genre fiction or any kind of fiction that tells a story is in it for the money and nothing else. It’s a lie. The idea that all storytellers are in it for the money is untrue but it is still hurtful, it’s infuriating and it’s demeaning. I never in my life wrote a single word for money. As badly as we needed money, I never wrote for money. From those early days to this gala black tie night, I never once sat down at my desk thinking today I’m going to make a hundred grand. Or this story will make a great movie. If I had tried to write with those things in mind, I believe I would have sold my birthright for a plot of message, as the old pun has it. Either way, Tabby and I would still be living in a trailer or an equivalent, a boat. My wife knows the importance of this award isn’t the recognition of being a great writer or even a good writer but the recognition of being an honest writer.
Frank Norris, the author of McTeague, said something like this: “What should I care if they, i.e., the critics, single me out for sneers and laughter? I never truckled, I never lied. I told the truth.” And that’s always been the bottom line for me. The story and the people in it may be make believe but I need to ask myself over and over if I’ve told the truth about the way real people would behave in a similar situation.
Of course, I only have my own senses, experiences and reading to draw on but that usually – not always but usually – usually it’s enough. It gets the job done. For instance, if an elevator full of people, one of the ones in this very building – I want you to think about this later, I want you to think about it – if it starts to vibrate and you hear those clanks – this probably won’t happen but we all know it has happened, it could happen. It could happen to me or it could happen to you. Someone always wins the lottery. Just put it away for now until you go up to your rooms later. Anyway, if an elevator full of people starts free-falling from the 35th floor of the skyscraper all the way to the bottom, one of those view elevators, perhaps, where you can watch it happening, in my opinion, no one is going to say, “Goodbye, Neil, I will see you in heaven.” In my book or my short story, they’re far more apt to bellow, “Oh shit” at the top of their lungs because what I’ve read and heard tends to confirm the “Oh shit” choice. If that makes me a cynic, so be it.
I remember a story on the nightly news about an airliner that crashed killing all aboard. The so-called black box was recovered and we have the pilot’s immortal last four words: “Son of a bitch”. Of course, there was another plane that crashed and the black box recorder said, “Goodbye, Mother,” which is a nicer way to go out, I think.
Folks are far more apt to go out with a surprised ejaculation, however, then an expiring abjuration like, “Marry her, Jake. Bible says it ain’t good for a man to be alone.” If I happen to be the writer of such a death bed scene, I’d choose “Son of a bitch” over “Marry her, Jake” every time. We understand that fiction is a lie to begin with. To ignore the truth inside the lie is to sin against the craft, in general, and one’s own work in particular.
I’m sure I’ve made the wrong choices from time to time. Doesn’t the Bible say something like, “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of Chaucer?” But every time I did it, I was sorry. Sorry is cheap, though. I have revised the lie out if I could and that’s far more important. When readers are deeply entranced by a story, they forget the storyteller completely. The tale is all they care about.
But the storyteller cannot afford to forget and must always be ready to hold himself or herself to account. He or she needs to remember that the truth lends verisimilitude to the lies that surround it. If you tell your reader, “Sometimes chickens will pick out the weakest one in the flock and peck it to death,” the truth, the reader is much more likely to go along with you than if you then add something like, “Such chickens often meld into the earth after their deaths.”
How stringently the writer holds to the truth inside the lie is one of the ways that he can judge how seriously he takes his craft. My wife, who doesn’t seem to know how to a lie even in a social context where people routinely say things like, “You look wonderful, have you lost weight?” has always understood these things without needing to have them spelled out. She’s what the Bible calls a pearl beyond price. She also understands why I was in those early days so often bitterly angry at writers who were considered “literary.” I knew I didn’t have quite enough talent or polish to be one of them so there was an element of jealousy, but I was also infuriated by how these writers always seemed to have the inside track in my view at that time.
Even a note in the acknowledgments page of a novel thanking the this or that foundation for its generous assistance was enough to set me off. I knew what it meant, I told my wife. It was the Old Boy Network at work. It was this, it was that, on and on and blah, blah, blah. It is only in retrospect that I realize how much I sounded like my least favorite uncle who believed there really was an international Jewish cabal running everything from the Ford Motor Company to the Federal Reserve.
Tabitha listened to a fair amount of this pissing and moaning and finally told me to stop with the breast beating. She said to save my self-pity and turn my energy to the typewriter. She paused and then added, my typewriter. I did because she was right and my anger played much better when channeled into about a dozen stories which I wrote in 1973 and early 1974. Not all of them were good but most of them were honest and I realized an amazing thing: Readers of the men’s magazines where I was published were remembering my name and starting to look for it. I could hardly believe it but it appeared that people wanted to read what I was writing. There’s never been a thrill in my life to equal that one. With Tabby’s help, I was able to put aside my useless jealousy and get writing again. I sold more of my short stories. I sold Carrie and the rest, as they say, is history.
There’s been a certain amount of grumbling about the decision to give the award to me and since so much of this speech has been about my wife, I wanted to give you her opinion on the subject. She’s read everything I’ve written, making her something of an expert, and her view of my work is loving but unsentimental. Tabby says I deserve the medal not just because some good movies were made from my stories or because I’ve provided high motivational reading material for slow learners, she says I deserve the medal because I am a, quote, “Damn good writer”.
I’ve tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack. For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding. This is the way it has always been. Witness my childish resentment of anyone who ever got a Guggenheim.
But giving an award like this to a guy like me suggests that in the future things don’t have to be the way they’ve always been. Bridges can be built between the so-called popular fiction and the so-called literary fiction. The first gainers in such a widening of interest would be the readers, of course, which is us because writers are almost always readers and listeners first. You have been very good and patient listeners and I’m going to let you go soon but I’d like to say one more thing before I do.
Tokenism is not allowed. You can’t sit back, give a self satisfied sigh and say, “Ah, that takes care of the troublesome pop lit question. In another twenty years or perhaps thirty, we’ll give this award to another writer who sells enough books to make the best seller lists.” It’s not good enough. Nor do I have any patience with or use for those who make a point of pride in saying they’ve never read anything by John Grisham, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark or any other popular writer.
What do you think? You get social or academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture? Never in life, as Capt. Lucky Jack Aubrey would say. And if your only point of reference for Jack Aubrey is the Australian actor, Russell Crowe, shame on you.
There’s a writer here tonight, my old friend and some time collaborator, Peter Straub. He’s just published what may be the best book of his career. Lost Boy Lost Girl surely deserves your consideration for the NBA short list next year, if not the award itself. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it?
There’s another writer here tonight who writes under the name of Jack Ketchum and he has also written what may be the best book of his career, a long novella called The Crossings. Have you read it? Have any of the judges read it? And yet Jack Ketchum’s first novel, Off Season published in 1980, set off a furor in my supposed field, that of horror, that was unequaled until the advent of Clive Barker. It is not too much to say that these two gentlemen remade the face of American popular fiction and yet very few people here will have an idea of who I’m talking about or have read the work.
This is not criticism, it’s just me pointing out a blind spot in the winnowing process and in the very act of reading the fiction of one’s own culture. Honoring me is a step in a different direction, a fruitful one, I think. I’m asking you, almost begging you, not to go back to the old way of doing things. There’s a great deal of good stuff out there and not all of it is being done by writers whose work is regularly reviewed in the Sunday New York Times Book Review. I believe the time comes when you must be inclusive rather than exclusive.
That said, I accept this award on behalf of such disparate writers as Elmore Leonard, Peter Straub, Nora Lofts, Jack Ketchum, whose real name is Dallas Mayr, Jodi Picoult, Greg Iles, John Grisham, Dennis Lehane, Michael Connolly, Pete Hamill and a dozen more. I hope that the National Book Award judges, past, present and future, will read these writers and that the books will open their eyes to a whole new realm of American literature. You don’t have to vote for them, just read them.
Okay, thanks for bearing with me. This is the last page? This is it. Parting is such sweet sorrow. My message is simple enough. We can build bridges between the popular and the literary if we keep our minds and hearts open. With my wife’s help, I have tried to do that. Now I’m going to turn the actual medal over to her because she will make sure in all the excitement that it doesn’t get lost.
In closing, I want to say that I hope you all find something good to read tonight or tomorrow. I want to salute all the nominees in the four categories that are up for consideration and I do, I hope you’ll find something to read that will fill you up as this evening as filled me up. Thank you.
Steve Martin: Tonight we gather to honor Arthur Miller, exemplary man of letters, fearless novelist and short story writer, outspoken topical essayist, journalist and literary critic, down to earth, irreverent memoirist, versatile writer for radio, TV and screen, and as if all of that were not sufficient, our greatest living playwright.Crossing the boundary of these genres is Arthur Miller’s lifelong preoccupation with the condition of men and women joined together in common society. As he puts it, “Our membership in the ordinary human race”.
“We are trying to save ourselves separately,” Arthur Miller has cautioned, “and that is immoral”. His belief in the responsibility and obligation of the artist as a social being — he is well known for his decades long commitment to PEN — is balanced by an unsparing commitment to art as truth telling, a quality as eternal as the ancient Greek tragedians he has always admired yet especially pertinent to these times.
“Literature and art,” Miller says, “are not required to reassure when, in reality, there is no assurance, or to serve up clean and wholesome stories in all times and places.” Whatever he has written over seven decades, Arthur Miller monitors the tempo of time. This vigilance makes his work so modern and continuously vital. He never gives up attempting to capture time’s mysterious passage, whether it be the dark history of racial and religious repression, the dependable cycle of seasons allowing him to plow and plant his beloved Connecticut garden or the uneven memories of all too human characters in his evocative magical plays.
“The performer is his art,” Miller writes, “whereas the writer can step away and leave it for the world to make of it what he will.” Indeed, this brief introductory praise cannot possibly do justice to the essence of Arthur Miller’s dramatic poetry so let’s watch this excerpt from the 1984 production of “Death of a Salesman” starring Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich, courtesy of Castle Hill Productions.
Ladies and gentlemen, Arthur Miller.
Arthur Miller: Thank you. Thank you very much. Whenever I get up to thank people for inviting me to speak or accept some honor, I’m immediately assaulted by the memory of the actress, Maureen Stapleton, who stepped up to receive her Oscar some years back, and instead of submitting to hallowed custom by thanking her agent, her mother and father, her acting teacher, a few cousins and the doorman of her apartment house, she cleared her throat and said, “I want to thank everybody I ever met.”
I feel something similar now, probably because when you come down to it, I’m known primarily as a playwright, and playwrights, on the whole, are set slightly apart or below book writers. I’m not sure why this is so, unless it has something to do with how we are described. One doesn’t speak of bookwrights, poetwrights or prosewrights; we alone are associated, at least nominally, with shipwrights, millwrights, boatwrights. This is very odd.
I’ve written prose, of course, two novels, a lot of short stories, several books of reportage and so on; but I’m primarily a writer of plays–and playwrights, at least in America, are not generally thought of as literary. The reason for this, most probably, is that they usually aren’t. We are regarded, at best, as hybrids, people who write, to be sure, but our prose is basically functional. Actors have to be able to speak words easily and it has to nail audiences to their seats. Perhaps it is the utilitarian strain upon our writing that sets it apart and even helps denigrate it.
There were, for instance, a number of masterly European playwrights in the last century whose works have stayed alive through the generations but were left unconsidered for the Nobel Prize. I’m thinking of Chekhov, Strindberg, and Ibsen. And I’ll bet you can’t name the novelists who did win.
O’Neill, who was honored, would probably not have considered himself a literary artist, merely a truthful one. It was more than politeness that moved him to write to Sean O’Casey about one of his plays, “God, I wish I could write like that.” From one Irishman to another, this was a hell of a confession.
Among American playwrights, at least before Tennessee Williams, I can think of only two in the 20th century who manifestly tried to write plays with an eye toward literary style. One was Maxwell Anderson, but to write literary he had to slip on a quasi-Elizabethan disguise which, to be sure, had its vogue for several years but would probably not go down well with us any more because of its artificiality. We can stand the artificial from the British but not from locals.
For most of us, all British speech is artificial so we can’t tell the real artificial from the artificial. In short, we don’t expect reality from the British, we expect style. For the English, consciousness of linguistic style springs from an unshakable fascination with class, which governs speech from the top of the social ladder down to the Cockneys who make a daunting point of artificiality by refusing to speak like other Englishmen. They are free to invent outrageous new usages that generally mock the proprieties of their betters.
Clifford Odets was the American cockney, branding his language with his often delightfully peculiar twists which the critics thought came from the Bronx but were really his own invention. Nobody in the Bronx ever said, “I’m going out and get an eight-cylinder sandwich,” and anyway, he came from Philadelphia. Odets doted on language and kept a card file with lines he’d heard in the street, usages he would take home and do a little carving on.
When he started out, Odets cultivated a proletarian posture in tune with the depression time but he was really a literary man who kept his recondite tastes to himself lest he frighten the critics and scare off the Broadway ticket buyers. This avoidance was more than his eccentric choice, however; American theater distrusted the literary and, in fact, until Williams, the American play, in effect, pretended that it hadn’t been written at all but merely happened. Indeed, the highest compliment a play could have had was that it seemed to have written itself.
The situation has changed in recent decades, but I wonder if the basic acknowledgement of a play author’s existence is basically as a constructor and shaper of the action rather than that of a word artist. It is almost but not quite the present situation of the screenwriter. I have yet to meet anyone who went to see a movie because it was written by somebody. In effect, play writing was commonly thought of as a form of engineering, engineering with laughs, suspense or tears. A play was built rather than written.
This rubric, I suppose, is part of the mythology of authorial neutrality or literary bricklaying. A bricklayer has no ulterior ideology concerning the aesthetic or moral value of his work. It is enough that it be plumb and level and not fall down. If the Europeans quite differently assumed that a play of any moral or aesthetic pretensions was inevitably intended to mean something and was unavoidably metaphorical, the notion was close to anathema here. If you have a message, send it by Western Union was the wisdom of the day.
The Austrians have a saying. When some calamity happens, a train wreck, a collapsed bridge, there’s always somebody to remark, “Well, who knows for whom it’s good?” For American playwriting, this aversion to metaphorical significance exerted a weighty pressure to suppress speechifying about thematic significance, if any, relying upon the implications within the action to expand the play’s general significance.
A play that dared to venture beyond this stricture was suspect as unaesthetic propaganda. That classical plays-from the Greeks to Shakespeare to Chekhov- were loaded with generalizations about power, society and justice and so on was a fact that did not interfere with this aesthetic which itself, God forbid, could not be called an aesthetic at all but simply the only right and natural way of regarding theater or any other art.
Time magazine, after all, always referred to the author of a successful play as a crack playwright, quite as though he had peered through a gun sight and hit the bull’s eye. It was all very steely and mathematical and, of course, menacing to any author with more than pure entertainment in his mind.
The convention of the play as a species of engineering was, of course, unannounced and largely unconscious. American theater, like the British, had never been other than a commercial enterprise, quite opposite to that of Europe, which had developed out of a very different circumstance. It took George Bernard Shaw nearly ten years to get a British audience and critics to so much as listen to an Ibsen play for more than a week’s run and then only by stuffing the parts with great stars. There was always, apparently, an Anglo-Saxon suspicion, if not an aversion, to any play that parted too noticeably from the theater of pure entertainment.
In Europe, theater had traditionally been subsidized by either individual aristocrats — remember Lord Strange’s men during Shakespeare’s time — much as music was, or by towns and cities. These sponsors expected and indeed demanded some kind of compensation in at least some of the works they were paying for.
I recall a conversation I had with Thomas Mann after he had seen “Death of a Salesman” in New York. The play seemed to have somehow distressed him but not for the obvious reason. He was, indeed, affected by it, as he said, but it also apparently aroused some sort of resentment in him. “They are like aborigines,” he said of the characters. “There is no idea coming from them.”
To me, of course, if I may say so, that was precisely the triumph of the play, whose metaphor lay in its very design, in the arc of its story, in the voyage of its characters. Put another way, I had learned my American theater lesson: If you have a message, send it either by Western Union or by virtue of the play’s inexorability.
I think it was Tennessee Williams who first successfully introduced our theater to what could be called literary writing. Clearly, the author of “Glass Menagerie” and “Streetcar” was declaring rather than camouflaging his writerly presence on the stage. This stuff did not just happen nor had it been overheard. It was a highly composed, often sumptuous language, in whose writing one easily sensed a certain authorial joy.
But here I am getting really interested in the subject and I have to stop. So thanks again, and next time it crosses your minds to cite a playwright for this honor, please don’t hesitate. It is like the great comedian, Fred Allen, once said when one of the sponsors of his radio show kept barging out of the control room to excitedly suggest some inept change in the script. After four or five such interruptions, Allen, his patience worn thin, asked: “Where were you when the pages were blank?”
The answer, of course, is that the executive may not have been aware of it but he was waiting for a writer who, God knows, may even have been a literary fellow in disguise. Thank you.
Steve Martin: Each year the Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation confers a special award upon an individual who has enriched our literary culture through a life of service or a corpus of work. The National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters will be presented tonight to Ray Bradbury.
Novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter, and poet, Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Illinois 80 years ago. He grew up in Illinois and Arizona and his family moved to Los Angeles in 1934, where Mr. Bradbury has lived ever since. He married Marguerite McClure in 1947. They have four daughters: Tina, Ramona, Susan, and Alexandra.
Ray Bradbury’s first published story was called “Hollerbochen’s Dilemma,” and it appeared inImagination! Magazine. The author was 18 years old.
Since that time, how can we even begin to count all of the ways in which Ray Bradbury has etched his indelible impressions upon the American literary landscape? There are few modern authors who can claim such a wide and varied province for their work, spanning from the secret inner-worlds of childhood dreams, to the magic realism of everyday life, to the infinite expanses of outer space.
Half a century ago, The Martian Chronicles was published and soon thereafter Fahrenheit 451 (by the way in Europe that would be “Centigrade 283”)–the quintessential book lovers’ book written in nine days; and then Dandelion Wine, I Sing the Body Electric, The Illustrated Man, The October Country, Something Wicked This Way Comes. (By the way, the original title was “Look Out, Here Comes Something Wicked”.) Ray Bradbury’s prodigious and seemingly never-sleeping imagination continues to delight us, and next fall his new novel, From the Dust Returned, will be published by Avon Books.
What better way to conclude this introduction to Ray Bradbury than to show a clip from the classic film “Fahrenheit 451”, directed by Francois Truffaut starring Oscar Werner and the incomparable Julie Christie. We extend thanks to Universal Pictures for providing this excerpt. Let’s roll the film.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ray Bradbury.
Mr. Bradbury: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you very much. Well, here I am. I have one good eye, one good ear, one good leg, and there’s other things missing but I’m afraid to look.
This reminds me of my encounter with W. C. Fields when I was a kid. My folks wandered out to Los Angeles because my dad was looking for work in the Great Depression and I was enamored of movie stars and I wanted to see famous people so I put on my roller skates, I was 13 years old, and I roller-skated out to Hollywood and there standing on the steps of Paramount Studios was everybody’s hero, Mr. W. C. Fields himself. I roller-skated over to him; I said Mr. Fields, can I have your autograph? And he signed it and gave it back to me; he said, “There you are, you little son-of-a-bitch.” And here I am. I felt as if I was knighted that day.
This is incredible. This is quite amazing because who you’re honoring tonight is not only myself but the ghost of a lot of your favorite writers. And I wouldn’t be here except that they spoke to me in the library. The library’s been the center of my life. I never made it to college. I started going to the library when I graduated from high school. I went to the library every day for three or four days a week for 10 years and I graduated from the library when I was 28.
And so I’ve written more short stories and novels and plays and poems about other writers than any other writer in history. I’ve been madly in love with them. I’ve written poems about Edgar Allen Poe being my father. Emily Dickinson being my mother. I’ve written a poem the title of which is “Emily Dickinson Where Are You? Herman Melville Mentioned Your Name Last Night in His Sleep.” I’ve written a wonderful story called, “Any Friend of Nicholas Nickleby’s is a Friend of Mine” in which Charles Dickens comes to live in my grandparent’s home when I’m 12-years-old during the long summer of 1932. You didn’t know it, but I helped him finish A Tale of Two Cities with a nickel tablet and a yellow Ticonderoga #2 pencil.
So my dream has always been; I’ve never been jealous or envious of other writers. I have been in love with them and my dream always was that some day I could go to the library and look up on the shelf and see my own name gleaming against L. Frank Baum and the wonderful Oz books, or against Edgar Allen Poe’s or leaning against many other similar writers and knowing that Jules Verne was on a shelf down below me along with H. G. Wells. These are all my companions.
I wrote a long poem a few years ago about taking a journey across England to Land’s End and I said to myself, “Who would I want to take on such a journey late at night, and just sit up all night and listen to them and not say a word myself?” I’d have Rudyard Kipling there and Charles Dickens and Aldous Huxley and Edgar Allen Poe and Herman Melville and listen to their talk all night and go to sleep with the lazy talk of these wonderful people inside my ears.
So when it comes to a novel like Fahrenheit 451, I don’t know how many of you know, but I wrote it in the library, the basement at UCLA. This is 50 years ago. I had no money to rent a proper office. I had a large family at home and I needed to have a place where I could go for a few hours. I was wandering around the UCLA campus and I looked down below and I listened and down in the basement I heard this typing. So I went down in the basement of the UCLA library and by God there was a room with 12 typewriters in it that you could rent for 10 cents a half-hour. And there were eight or nine students in there working away like crazy, so I moved in there one day with a bag of dimes and I began inserting dimes into the machine and the machine released the typewriter and you’d have half an hour of fast typing. I ran upstairs in between sessions.
Can you imagine what it was like to write Fahrenheit 451 in the library where you could run upstairs and feel the ambience of your beloved writers; and you could take books off the shelf and discover things that you might want to put in your book as a quote and then run back down and finish writing another page. So over a period of nine days I spent $9.80 and I wrote Fahrenheit 451.
You might say I wrote a dime novel, right? But, later Ballantine Books came along and they wanted me to add some material to it so I wrote another 2,500 words. That was during the Joseph McCarthy period. He was giving a bad time to a number of people and I wrote the additional pages to Fahrenheit 451. I still needed some extra income because my family was growing, and I tried to sell it to various magazines who were afraid of the subject matter because Joseph McCarthy was making such a ruckus in the country.
A young editor came along who was starting a new magazine and needed material. He said, “I have very little money. I’ve got $400. Is there something you could sell me for $400?” I said,”Yes, I have this novel and I’d like to have it published in the magazine before it comes out in book form,” and he said, “I will take it.” So I sold Fahrenheit 451 and it appeared in the second, third, and fourth issues of Playboy.
Not a lot of applause from you men here. [APPLAUSE] That’s more like it. That’s more like it. Where would you have been when you were 14 without that magazine, huh? We didn’t have anything like that when I was growing up. It was a terrible, terrible time. Hugh Hefner came up to me at a party a year ago and said, “Thanks for being there when it counted.” And no one knew what he was talking about, but I did. He gave me a chance upward.
It’s been a long, slow process and I’ve been helped by a number of wonderful friends. Number one, my wife took a vow of poverty to marry me, and when we got married we had $10 in the bank.
This is back in 1947, and my wife had to go to work immediately. We had a ceremony at an Episcopal Church and I put $5 in an envelope and handed it to the minister. He said, “What’s this?” I said, “That’s your pay for the ceremony today.” He said, “You’re a writer aren’t you?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Then you’re going to need this.” He handed it to me. I took it back and many years later I sent him a decent check.
I settled into this small bungalow with Maggie back in ’47, but that same month a wonderful thing happened. A young editor at Simon & Schuster wrote me. I had met him briefly that summer before and was incredibly impressed with him. His name was Don Congdon and he said in his letter, “I’m stopping being an editor now this month. Do you need a literary agent?” And I responded to him, “Only if it’s for a lifetime.”
I married Don Congdon the same month I married my wife. So I had 53 years of being spoiled by my wife and by Don Congdon. We’ve never had a fight or an argument during that time because he’s always been out on the road ahead of me clearing away the dragons and the monsters and the fakes. And saying to me every time something came up, “What is this going to mean 10 years from now or 20 years from now? We’d better not do it.” So that’s the best advice you can have.
And then along the way I had wonderful editors like Kathy Hourigan over at Knopf, and Bob Gottlieb, and now I have Jennifer Brehl at Avon. But a wonderful thing happened concerning one of my first books. Back in 1949 my wife was pregnant and we had absolutely no money in the bank. Our friend Norman Corwin, the great radio writer, producer, director, a dear friend, said to me, “Ray, why don’t you come to New York and let the editors see your face and maybe you’ll sell something there.” So I got on the Greyhound bus, four days, four nights to New York. Have you ever done that on the Greyhound bus? Don’t. Don’t. Those were the days before air conditioning and toilets.
I arrived at the YMCA, the Sloan House, moved in there for $5 a week and proceeded to show my short stories to editors all around New York City, but nobody wanted my short stories. They said, “Don’t you have a novel?” I said, “No I’m a sprinter. I’m a sprinter.” But finally I had dinner my last night in New York with Don Congdon and Walter Bradbury, no relation of mine. Walter Bradbury at Doubleday. And sitting at dinner that night he said to me, “Ray, what about all those Martian stories you’ve been writing in the pulp magazines during the last 10 years? Don’t you think they would make a novel if you wove them together in some sort of tapestry and called it The Martian Chronicles?” I said, “Oh my God.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “I read Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson when I was 24 and I said to myself, ‘Oh God, wouldn’t it be wonderful if someday I could write a book as good as this but put it on the planet Mars.'”
I made an outline, I named some characters, but I forgot all about it and suddenly here was Walter Bradbury suggesting to me a possible novel I’d written without knowing it. So he said, “Do an outline. Come tomorrow to the Doubleday offices and if I read your outline and like it I’ll give you $750.”
I stayed up all night at the Y. I wrote the outline. I took it to him the next day and he said, “Yes, this is it. Here’s $750.” He said, “Now do you have any other material that you could give me that we could kid people into thinking it was a novel?” And I said, “Yes, I have a short story about a man with tattoos all over his body and at night when he dreams he perspires and the tattoos on his body come to life and tell their stories.” And he said, “Here’s another $750.”
So in one day I sold The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man for $1,500. I was rich. And that’s, you know, 53 years ago and money went a long way then. It paid for our rent for the next two years. Our rent was only $30 a month. It paid for our baby. Babies were cheap back then. It cost $100 for our baby. And it was a down payment on a little tract house when we moved inland further. The book came out and there were very, very few reviews. In fact, only one. I was in a bookstore. I bumped into Christopher Isherwood. I did not know him. I grabbed a copy of my book; I signed it and gave it to him. I thought, Oh Christ, you know, I know he’s thinking, “One more book to read. Oh God.”
But three days later Christopher Isherwood called me and said, “Do you know what you’ve done?” I said, “No, what have I done?” He said, “You’ve written a remarkable book and I’m going to be the book editor and writer for Tomorrow Magazinenext October and this will be my first review.” So he did a three-page review of The Martian Chronicles which introduced me to the intellectual world and saved my soul.
So that was the only review. But he introduced me to Gerald Heard and finally my hero, Aldous Huxley, at tea one day. I hate tea. My God, I hate tea. And you have to pretend to like tea when you’re sitting with Aldous Huxley. And Mr. Huxley leaned forward during tea and he said, “Do you know what you are?” And I said, “No, what am I Mr. Huxley?” He said, “You’re published. You’re a poet.” I said, “Is that what I am? Is that what I am.” Aldous Huxley was telling me that I was a poet and I had yet to write one decent poem. I was working at it but it didn’t come right, so I put all my poetry into my books.
So through Isherwood, I met a lot of wonderful people and over the years slowly, slowly, slowly, The Martian Chronicles came into being. I wrote a whole series of essays and short stories and one day woke up and saw that I’d written a novel, and that’s still around.
All of my work is a wonderful surprise and a delight. I take joy in what I do. I have a wonderful relationship with my waking self every morning and that hour around 7:30 when your brain is not connected to your ears, when it’s floating around inside your head full of metaphors. I lie in bed and I watch the metaphors collect and drift and when they reach a certain point of collision, I jump out of bed and get them down before they go away. Everything I’ve done is a surprise, a wonderful surprise. I sometimes get up at night when I can’t sleep and walk down into my library and open one of my books and read a paragraph and say My God, did I write that? Did I write that? Because it’s still a surprise.
Along the way people said to me, “Ray, when are you going to do a screenplay?” Because I love motion pictures. I’ve seen just about every one ever made. A lot of the bad ones and a lot of the wonderful ones over and over again. I said, “Yes, there’s one man I’d love to work for, that’s John Huston,” and I knew that I wanted to work for him. Well, I gave John all of my books of short stories one day in 1951, and he wrote back from Africa where he was making “The African Queen” and he said, “Yes, I agree with you, someday we’ll work together. I don’t know on what.”
The day finally came. I came home from a bookstore one day and my wife said, “John Huston just called. He wants you to come to his hotel.” I went to John Huston’s hotel. I walked into his room. He put a drink in my hand. He sat me down and he leaned over and he said, “Ray, what are you doing during the next year?” I said, “Not much, Mr. Huston. Not much.” And he said, “Well, Ray, how would you like to come live in Ireland and write this screenplay of ‘Moby Dick’?” And I said, “Gee, Mr. Huston, I’ve never been able to read the damn thing.”
He’d never heard that before and he thought for a moment and then he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what Ray. Why don’t you go tonight, read as much as you can, and come back tomorrow and then tell me if you’ll help me kill a white whale.”
So I went home that night and I said to my wife, “Pray for me.” She said, “Why?” I said, “Because I’ve got to read a book tonight and do a book report tomorrow.”
Luckily I was at the right age to read the book. I was 33 years old. I’d tried when I was younger. It just didn’t work. But what I saw there is a part of myself, the gift of metaphor.
All the early writers in America, Melville and Poe and many of the others wrote in metaphorical style. You could remember their stories. I raced through the book. I didn’t read it. I looked at all the metaphors and I came back the next day and I said, “Yes, I’ll do it.”
I went to live in Ireland for the better part of a year and it was hellish work. Terrible work because I read some sections of the novel over 100 times. Some sections 200 times. Some sections 300 times. Other sections not at all because you’re looking for the metaphor. You’re finding a way to combine things and put them together. And finally, after seven months of hard work, a day of great passionate relaxation came to me. I got out of bed one morning in London and I looked in the mirror and I said, “I am Herman Melville.” I sat down at the typewriter and in eight blazing hours I wrote the last 40 pages of the screenplay and it all came out right; for that one day, for a few hours, the ghost of Melville was really in me. Was really in me.
I ran across London and I threw the screenplay into John Huston’s lap and I said, “There, I think it’s finished.” And he read it and he said, “By God, start the cameras.” That happened after all that research and trying to get Melville into my bloodstream, a very important, very important thing. Along the way after “Moby Dick” I worked on many other things. I worked on many screenplays. Did some more short stories. And finally, one of the great things in my life had to do with space travel.
People are always asking how I can be so involved with outer space. Why do I care about space travel. My answer has always been because I think there is a chance for us to become immortal. Our endeavor to go into space has to do with our living in other worlds and moving life from earth out to Alpha Centauri and perhaps further with all the bumps and wrinkles, with all our inconsistencies, with all our evil things, but not with all of our bad things because we’ll be taking along Shakespeare and many others, Emily Dickinson, many other people to fund the universe with our knowledge.
When we landed on the moon, David Frost asked me to appear on his show so that I could explain my ideas about the reason for us being alive at all. So I went over to the “David Frost Show” and I was there at 8:30 at night when we landed on the moon. A great moment. I was crying. I think all over the world people were crying. One of the greatest nights in the history of the world.
So I prepared to go on the show and say what I had to say, and David Frost said, “And now we have a great American here, a pure genius. He’s a wonder,” and I thought, That’s got to be me. It’s got to be me. And he says, “And here he is, Engelbert Humperdinck.” No, no, no! He came up and sang his stupid song, and then he started another introduction I thought, “Well this time it’s got to be me.” And he did another introduction and it was for Sammy Davis, Jr. He was a very nice guy, a very talented guy. I knew him. I took my daughters out to see him the day before on the set of the studio, but this was not a night for Sammy Davis, Jr. or Englebert Humperdinck.
I walked off the show. I went out to the parking lot, the producer came running after me and said, “What are you doing out here?” I said, “I’m leaving.” He said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “Watch my dust. That idiot in there has ruined the greatest night in the history of the world. I don’t want to be on the show with him. Get me a cab and get me out of here.” They got me a cab and I crossed London and I went to meet with Walter Cronkite. I did a show with Walter Cronkite on Telstar around the world and I was able to say what I had to say about the possible immortality of mankind.
We’re always asking, “What are we doing here on earth?” We are the audience. There’s no use having a universe, a cosmology, if you don’t have witnesses. We are the witnesses to the miracle. We are put here by creation, by God, by the cosmos, whatever name you want to give it. We’re here to be the audience to the magnificent. It is our job to celebrate. That’s what I wanted to say and what I did say on the Cronkite show.
I stayed up all night that night we landed on the moon. I was on nine different shows around the world. I said all these things. I cried all night I was so happy. At nine o’clock in the morning I walked back across London exhausted but very, very joyful, and out in front of my hotel I saw a little London newspaper and it said, “Neil Armstrong walks at 6:00 a.m., Bradbury walks at midnight.” So I had the satisfaction of that moment, of being part of our landing on the moon, and my hope is that we will go back in the near future.
Now it’s time to wind this up and to show my appreciation for this magnificent Medal. My moment with Herman Melville in many ways is equal to what has occurred to me in my lifetime and what you have told me tonight. I’ve researched my life. I’ve looked into myself. I’ve tried to find me. Along the way I’ve located myself.
Tonight I can look in the mirror and say to myself, My God, who’s that there? Why, that’s Ray Bradbury. I can’t believe it. You’ve done it to me. Thank you very much.
INTRODUCTION OF OPRAH WINFREY, 50TH ANNIVERSARY GOLD MEDAL RECIPIENT
Neil Baldwin: Just how historic is this event? I want to recognize some very important members of the audience tonight, in addition to the 1999 National Book Awards Finalists and Judges, whom you will be meeting later in the program. We’re proud to welcome thirty-five past National Book Award Winners this evening, as well as the recipients of our Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. We welcome seventeen distinguished alumni, who attended the very first National Book Awards in 1950, who are here with us. They’ve come to see whether we’ve progressed at all in the past half century, I guess.
We welcome past and present Chairmen, and members of the dedicated Board of Directors of the National Book Foundation. And I’d like to extend a special welcome, on behalf of our institutional family, to all the Oprah book club authors who are with us tonight paying tribute to our Gold Medal Recipient. I’d like all of the people I just mentioned to stand and be recognized, and applauded.
This is the largest National Book Awards in history. There are approximately 1,056 people in this room at the present time. I should know. And up there in the balcony, we have over 125 members of the press from around the world. This is also the most successful benefit dinner in the history of the National Book Foundation. Thanks to your philanthropy, we have raised over $1.7 million this evening, in support of our educational outreach programs. Thank you.
And I should add that in spirit, the first three Winners of the National Book Awards 1950, Nelson Algren, Ralph Rusk, and William Carlos Williams, are here in the guise of their three winning books, which are on your tables this evening for you to take a look at.
And now, what can possibly be said about Oprah Winfrey that has not already been said? I was intrigued to learn that her birth name, selected by her mother’s aunt, Ida Carr, was to have been Orpah, from the Bible. But the two letters were transposed on the birth certificate. So, what’s in a name? Orpah, in the Book of Ruth, was Ruth’s sister-in-law. The two women were married to the sons of Naomi. And when their husbands died, Ruth chose to follow Naomi to the Holy Land. However, Orpah has two meanings in Hebrew. One is “the obstinate one.” Perhaps that has something to say. The other is more poetic: “she who rides the clouds.” Orpah resolved to remain faithful to her own people. She turned back alone, independent, to the place of her childhood, and to her roots in Moab.
I think that Aunt Ida demonstrated prescient faith in this newborn child’s qualities. Because if you look at the underlying themes of the books which Oprah has chosen over the past three years for her book club, you will find testimonies to the strength of women in desperate times. You will find morality tales, very much like the tale of Orpah and Ruth, in which someone chooses a road not taken, and takes her own path, instead of one urged upon her by others. And you will discover, as Oprah Winfrey herself has observed in praise of Toni Morrison’s books, literature that goes to the interior of a person’s spirit. You will find heroines, and heroes too, to cheer for. Intrepid, yet often vulnerable. Tough, yet often threatened, as they confront and try to overcome their various demons.
All of the publishers in this room know that Oprah Winfrey possesses the magical quality to create bestsellers. And we recognize, and indeed we are in awe of that phenomenon. The Board of Directors of The National Book Foundation has decided to present Oprah Winfrey with our Fiftieth Anniversary Gold Medal, and with a special crystal sculpture, created for us by Tiffany, because our mission dovetails so well with hers. Through our educational programs, we share her belief that quality, challenging, and, yes, often times difficult literature, can and should be made popular. We share her belief that great literature in our culture, while it always has been the creation of the few, must become the province of many.
We share Oprah’s belief that books change lives. Oprah Winfrey, would you come up, please?
OPRAH WINFREY, 50TH ANNIVERSARY GOLD MEDAL RECIPIENT
PRESENTED AT THE 1999 NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS
Oprah Winfrey: Thank you Neil, and thank you to the National Book Foundation. More than movie stars, and rock stars, and famous politicians, and world leaders, and powerhouse rich muckety mucks, and lah-de-das, I love authors. I just, I love authors. I love authors because in the beginning was the word. The word with the power to sustain us, and fill us, and make us whole. For all of you here tonight, who wrestle with the word, who are bound to and liberated by the word, God bless you. I may appear to be cool, but I really am just plain giddy being in your presence, and being allowed to stand here before you to receive this award.
The very idea – let me just share with you for a moment – of creating a book club on television, came to me by way of my senior producer, Alice McGee, who’s seated at that table there, and producer Laura Sillars, and the entire Book Club team: Heather Short, and Jill Adams, Gregg Sherkin, please stand, because without them this never would have happened. Our executive producer, Diane Hudson, please stand, who said, “Go ahead, do it. Go ahead.”
So, this is how it all started. Alice McGee and Laura came into my office one day, and said, “You know, the book club is really popular, and we know how much you love books. Perhaps maybe you would like to start a book club on television.” Now, Alice and I had been book buddies for a long time, exchanging books since The Color Purple. Every year for Christmas, Alice gives me a leather bound copy of whatever was our favorite read that year. When she and Laura first came to me with the idea, however, of doing a book club on television, needless to say, it didn’t go over very well. I think I said something like, “get out of my office now.” Because we tried it before, because we all love books. And we tried to talk about fiction on television, and it just did dismally in the ratings, because no one else had read the book. So, they persisted with bait that they knew would hook me in. They came back a week later, and said, we know how much you love authors, how you get excited just knowing you can find their numbers. Two years before, Alice and I had shared this experience, because on the back of the book jackets, if the author isn’t very well-known, it lists where they live. So, Alice and I had called up Wally Lamb at home, after reading She’s Come Undone, just to discuss Dolores, and how he could write about a woman so profoundly. And so, we call Wally at home, and found that Wally was doing his laundry. And we couldn’t believe it. We hung up the phone and went, “authors do laundry.” Can’t believe it.
So, we later learned that, once they become more successful, they are not listed. Years before I had made a similar call, 1989, to Toni Morrison. She was, of course, unlisted. And I had to call the fire department in her town, claiming an emergency to get her number. I just wanted to talk to her about Beloved. I’d finished reading it, and asked her. I said, “Ms. Morrison, does anyone ever tell you that sometimes they have to go over the sentences several times, to get the full meaning of what you’re really saying?” And she said, “that, my dear, is called reading.” Oh my.
I admire, respect, and adore authors. My reading of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, when I was a teenager, was my first recollection of being validated. The fact that someone as poor as I, as Black as I, from the South, from rape, from confusion, could move to hope, to possibility, and to victory, could be written about in a real book that I had chosen in the library was amazing to me. Authors could do that, with the word.
So, when Alice and Laura came again, and said, we have an idea – every month, you can sit, and you can talk to the author as long as you’d like, and we could even do it over dinner. I thought, authors and dinner, oh my.
Thank you, Neil, for this honor. I thank the National Book Foundation. It’s a charge and a thrill to be acknowledged, as well as a confirmation that doing what you love, and sharing what you love, can bring this much reward. Books allowed me to see that there was a world beyond Mississippi, beyond poverty, beyond Nashville, beyond Milwaukee. Books allowed me a new way of seeing myself, helped me to create a vision that has exceeded even my grandest dreams. Opened the door to experiences and connections I never knew existed. Books helped me to know, what Maya often says, that we really are more alike than we are different. The real blessing for us all at the book club is now being able to open that door for somebody else.
This is how it works. It’s not really very complicated. I choose the books that I truly love. The main criterion is that I have to like it a lot. Sometimes the books are offered to me by one person. Now we have a whole team who reads them. And sometimes I just find them browsing in the bookstores. This past Sunday, I was at Barnes and Noble, bought $688 worth of new fiction, with my corporate discount.
So, the main criteria is that I have to respond to it, and I have ultimate veto power even if they all like it. And the author has to be alive to talk about it. We cannot open that dead author door, because it’s just too wide. Recently Alice came to me and said she had a book that she wanted me to read. And I said, is the author alive? And she said, well, she only died recently. No way.
We have to be taken in by it. Every month, we are just as overwhelmed as the authors and publishers are at how the books are received. Maybe not the publishers. But, since our only profit really is that we are exposing more people to the word, that is our great delight. Here is some of what I wanted to share with you, what that has wrought. We get thousands of letters and emails. Noel Gardener from Morrisville, Pennsylvania said, “I’m so angry with you, Oprah. I’ve spent my time since you’ve started your book club as a crazy person. These books have consumed me. Since your book club has started, I’ve become a real reader. I think that I realize that what reading should be about, apart from being an escape, is making you think, examine, pull apart, and rethink. And maybe, after rethinking, I’m not so angry with you. Maybe I’m just saying thank you for showing me a way to find out who I can really be, who I really am, and what I can really do if I put my mind to it.”
Another one says, “My ten-year-old son wanted me,” this is Evelyn in North Augusta, South Carolina. “My ten-year-old son wanted me to read Paradise, after hearing you talk about it on your show. Of course I ignored him at first. But everyday when he came home from school, he would say, mom, did you read that book Miss Oprah said? Finally, I purchased the book, and started reading the first chapter. I was lost” -that my dear is called reading, “But I remember you saying it would get clearer as I got further along. Well, guess what. I could not put the book down. And every day I found myself looking forward to my private getaway with my book. Reading this book has helped me to forget about my own problems. Thanks for opening a new door for me.”
And thousands of others. But my very favorite was a woman who stood up in the audience, not too long ago. I forgot what the show was. We were doing a commercial break, and she stood up and said, “Oprah, hi. My name is Wilma, Wilma Gardener. I’m from Gary, Indiana. I’m a president of the Gary improvement association, and I’m president of my bowling league. I say all that not to brag. Just to let you know, I’m a very intelligent woman. But I haven’t read a book in over 30 years. So, I was so happy you started that book club. I’m a member, you know, of your book club. I get the books when you say get the books, only I don’t get the books you say get. No, I don’t really like the books you recommend. But I do like Patti LaBelle, and I got that book, Don’t Block the Blessings. I just love that book. And then I bought that Michael Jackson book. He didn’t have much to say. But I’m waiting on you to announce when the time is for us to get the next book, because I’m going to buy the Aretha Franklin book. I just want you to know, I’m proud to me a member of your book club.”
Paul LeCerc: It is a great pleasure to be here tonight to have the honor of introducing two of the most important forces in writing in our nation, the National Book Foundation, the sponsor of the National Book Awards, and John Updike, the recipient of the 1998 National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
The two have much in common. The National Book Awards, established 49 years ago, now recognize annually exceptional works of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. John Updike has now published 49 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature, an exceptional, indeed, extraordinary body of work that exemplifies the qualities of expression we all are here to celebrate.
The parallels between the Foundation’s work and Mr. Updike’s output continue well beyond the number 49. The National Book Foundation, when not engaged in honoring writers like John Updike and our finalists this evening, is dedicated to illuminating the relationship between reading and writing. Everyday, in inner cities and in rural communities, at settlement houses and Native American reservations, in public libraries and on the National Book Foundation’s Website, the Foundation offers ordinary Americans the opportunity to do something extraordinary, to participate in the writing life of our nation.
Likewise, when not producing books that have earned him honors, including two National Book Awards and six nominations for the Award, Mr. Updike is devoted to exploring American letters. He does so through our Foundation’s Writing Life Programs, a source of pride to our board, our staff, and our audiences. But tonight everyone who loves books must share in our particular pride as we honor John Updike for his other contributions to the writing life.
Throughout his brilliant career, he has relied on a single and a singular critical touchstone, a fervent relationship to the world. Whether his subject has been James Joyce or Doris Day, the Ming Dynasty or Moby Dick, millions of readers have reciprocated his ardent and abiding interestedness.
Of course, a fervent relation to the world is also the hallmark of John Updike’s fiction. This developed, no doubt, during his boyhood in Chillington, Pennsylvania. His father, Wesley, was a high school teacher who loved to rub elbows and mixed up with his neighbors on Philadelphia Avenue. His mother, Linda, we’re told, preferred typing away on her portable Remington typewriter with elite type. She wanted to be a writer.
Invariably, it seems, her stories were rejected but, as Mr. Updike once remarked, and I quote, “The bounce of their return at least demonstrated that this intoxicating vapor of printed material had a source which a person might some day, by following the same yellow brick road, reach.
For him, that yellow brick road led first to Harvard, then to Oxford and then to this island city, Manhattan, where he began working as a reporter for the New Yorker in 1955. Three years later, he published his first collection of poetry, The Carpentered Hen followed the next year by The Same Door, a collection of stories. In 1959, he also published The Poorhouse Fair, the first of his 17 novels to date and a book that introduced the world to a novelist whose achievements have been ranked alongside those of Dickens, George Elliot and Joyce.
The heroes of John Updike’s fictions are as ordinary as characters can be who have left an indelible impression on readers around the globe, Rabbit Angstrom, Henry Bech, Richard Maple, Piet Hanema, are all more or less middle class Americans leading more or less mundane lives. What distinguishes them is an infinite capacity for wonder at the commonplace. What marks them, too, is their search for something divine to stave off the nothingness that terrifies them. Torn between the conventional mortality of the day and their own inner imperatives, they often fail to find the redemption that they seek. The dilemmas remain unresolved.
Nonetheless, in novels like Couples, Roger’s Version, and In the Beauty of the Lilies, in collections like Midpoint, Trust Me, and Too Far to Go, and in his inimitable Rabbit Tetralogy and Bech Trilogy, the world John Updike depicts is always deserving of praise.
At the beginning of his career, he had said he felt overwhelmed by his self imposed task to say all that could be said and, I quote, “The whole mass of muddling, hidden, troubled Americans, to sort out, to particularize and extol it with the proper dark beauty. What I doubted,” he wrote, “was not the grandeur or the plenitude of my topic but my ability to find the works to express it.”
John Updike, it is a privilege to acknowledge what your readers have known all along. You have indeed expressed your topic in book after book. You have found exactly the right words with which to extol the dark beauty of America and particularize the middling, hidden, troubled lives of your fellow citizens.
On behalf of readers everywhere and especially on behalf of my fellow members of the board of the National Book Foundation, and also on behalf of our very generous donor of this year’s medal, our friend and fellow board member, Walter Moseley, it is an honor to thank you publicly for all that you have done for the writing life in America and to bestow upon you the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
OF PRIZES AND PRINT
John Updike: When I was told of this handsome honor, my mind flicked back to the two other times when I have been so fortunate as to be summoned by the National Book Awards. The first occasion, on March 10, 1964, was immortalized by a young reporter for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune who signed himself Tom — as distinguished from Thomas — Wolfe. His coverage began with these two paragraphs:
“No sensitive artist in America will ever have to duck the spotlight again. John Updike, the Ipswich, Mass., novelist, did it for them all last night, for all time. Up on the stage in the Grand Ballroom of the New York Hilton Hotel, to receive the most glamorous of the five National Book Awards, the one for fiction, came John Updike, author of The Centaur, in a pair of 19-month-old loafers.
“Halfway to the podium, the spotlight from the balcony hit him, and he could not have ducked better if there had been a man behind it with a rubber truncheon. First he squinted at the light through his owl-eyed eyeglasses. Then he ducked his head and his great thatchy medieval haircut toward his right shoulder. Then he threw up his left shoulder and his left elbow. Then he bent forward at the waist. And then, before the shirred draperies of the Grand Ballroom and an audience of 1,000 culturati, he went into his Sherwin-Williams blush.”
In illustration of the tricks that memory plays, I remember the event as rather intimate and sedate. There had been a late-winter snowstorm in New England, and my then-wife and I had risen very early to catch a train, and arrived rumpled and sleepy for this moment of triumph. Newspapers don’t lie, so the Hilton Grand Ballroom it must have been, but my impression was of a small low room with a scattering of librarians in flowered hats on folding chairs. They smiled benignly, I remember that, and I also remember that just as I was about to step out into the spotlight for my turn at bat, somebody pestered me to sign his program, or scorecard. That, and the subsequent report by Tom Wolfe, were my first taste of the joys of celebrity.
The second occasion took place on April 27, 1982, in Carnegie Hall. The prizes at that point were, for no doubt valid reasons, called the American Book Awards, and only the winners were expected to show up. What I remember of that proud occasion is that my editor, Judith Jones, who sat beside me in the great concert hall, confided early during the ceremonies that she had just come from gum surgery. This is some editor, I thought at the time, and I think it still; Judith has been brave and loyal on my behalf for nearly forty years now. The ceremonies needed two hosts on stage, like the two interlocutors in minstrel shows of yore, Barbara Walters and William F. Buckley, Jr., by name, and their interspersions were so witty and well-considered, and the acceptance speeches of the other winners so heartfelt and elaborate, that as the allotted hour wore on, and as I sat there with the folded pages of my speech gathering dampness against my breast, it became clear that there would not be time for the fiction winner, who spoke last, to say anything at all.
A concert was scheduled for that evening, and we could hear, in the foyer and the wings, the musicians arriving with their clattering cellos and woodwinds, conversing of Stravinsky and Mahler and even emitting a few impatient toots on the French horn. Barbara Walters’s voice, normally so soothing, approached the strident as she advised us that our time was up; in a few gratefully applauded seconds I dashed up the aisle, grabbed my award from the large hand of Arthur Miller, and scampered away. The speech I never gave can be read in my collected works.
And now, as they say on television, this.
Like some graying comet, every seventeen years or so, I return from the outer darkness of the un-nominated. From under my thatchy medieval haircut I peer out and what do I see? Tuxedos! Sequins! Plunging necklines! I must be in Hollywood. There are, just as at the Academy Awards, quintets of nominees, to be shortly boiled down to one modestly blushing winner and four gamely smiling losers. As in the annual film ceremonial, there is a gala air of ritual sacrifice, and some docile old buck or doe of the trade is brought forward to be given a medal whose reverse side holds the invisibly engraved implication that the time has come to retire. Is there anything worrisome, anything Heaven-storming, about American publishing, whose saintly minions labor day after day far past dark over their endless proofs and their eerily glowing computer screens, putting on the dog for one night of the year? A Hollywoodian touch of glitz and glamour does not, let’s hope, entail a Hollywoodian bewitchment with the mass market, with billion-dollar grosses and gross-out courtship of the adolescent mind. One of the strengths and charms of the book industry, of course, is it’s relative modesty, bow tie more than black tie. A modesty that translates into a relative mobility, an ability to publish, without catastrophic loss, books which will appeal to few, and to give the public an immense variety of products. It is a variety that is both a proclamation and an enjoyment of American freedom.
And yet, to be honest, if I reflect on the psychological history that led me to become a cottage laborer in this industry, an impression of glamour was part of it. There was something glamorous about the Reading, Pennsylvania, public library, a stately Carnegie-endowed edifice at Fifth and Franklin, next to a sweet-smelling bakery, where I would go with my mother from an early age, walking at her side the block from the trolley-car stop at Fourth Street, climbing the many wide steps, and stepping into a temple of books. The towering walls of books seemed conjured from a realm far distant, utterly mysterious and gracious — the little numbers inked onto the spines, the pockets for a borrower’s card at the back, all these angelic arrangements. Who had done this for me? The well-thumbed volumes, with wider margins and smaller pages than are now customary, had a romantic savor of Thirties and Forties New York City.
I read through shelves of P. G. Wodehouse and Erle Stanley Gardner, Agatha Christie and Robert Benchley, and expanded my borrowing to include the even more glamorous books rented, for I think a penny a day, from a certain counter at Whitner’s department store. Those books had retained their jackets, which were in turn jacketed in cellophane — a very glamorous touch, that.
And there was a glamour, a swank, in the chastely severe, time-honored classics of English literature that one bought for courses at Harvard; sitting in my little dormered room in Lowell House at midnight, tilting back in my wooden Harvard chair, holding a cigarette in one hand and in the other the blue-covered Oxford Poetical Works of Spenser, with its tiny type, double columns, and Elizabethan spelling that reversed the “Vs” and the “Us.” I felt like a glamorous person indeed, me and the Faerie Queene, together in the clouds.
And there was certainly a glamour in the sample pages I received, some years later, from the firm of Knopf to show me what my first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, would look like in print. The novel had been a stumbling block for my initial publisher, and it was by the happiest of flukes that a carbon copy fell into the hands of an editor at Knopf, Sandy Richardson, who liked the book just as it was; then it fell into the hands of Harry Ford, a perfect knight of the print world, an editor and designer both, who gave me a delicious striped jacket and an elegant page format, in the typeface called Janson, that I have stuck with for over forty books since. To see those youthful willful hopeful words of mine in that type, with Perpetua chapter heads set off by tapered rules, was an elevated moment I am still dizzy from. The old letterpress Linotype had a glinting material bite that all the ingenious advantages of computer setting have not quite replaced.
This is perhaps the fond moment to thank for manifold kindnesses and encouragements my wife, Martha, who is here with two of her sons and a glamorous daughter-in-law, and to express my human debt also to my own four children, and their mother, and my parents, now dead, and my mother’s parents, long dead, who all together provided along the length of my life warm and action-packed houses that accommodated the presence of a stranger, my strange ambition to be something glamorous. I was and am grateful. And to The New Yorker, which since 1954 has given me a home of another sort. And to Fawcett Books, my paperback publisher since Rabbit, Run.
The book industry scarcely needs glamour when it has at its command something better, beauty — the beauty of the book. Though visual imagery is in a sense more absolute — more vivid, less arguable — than the printed word, electronic projectors are clumsy and prone to obsolescence compared to the physical object that bound paper forms. Alfred Knopf, when he was alive, dressed up for publishing much the way John Keats is alleged to have dressed up when he sat down to write a poem. In his purple shirts, expressionist neckties, and Burnside whiskers, he seemed a cross between a Viennese emperor and a Barbary pirate; but the menace in him never frightened me because I knew I was in the company of a man who loved books and cared about their beauty. The books he published showed it. We assembled here should rejoice in our venerable product; a book is beautiful in its relation to the human hand, to the human eye, to the human brain, and to the human spirit.