Stephen King Accepts the 2003 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters

photo of Neil BaldwinNeil 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 Mosle,yPhoto Credit: Anthony Barbosa

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?

Photo Credit: Chris Buck

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.

Copyright © 2003 Stephen King and the National Book Foundation. All rights reserved. This speech may not be reproduced in any form without written permission.