National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

Joyce Carol Oates, Winner of the 1970 FICTION AWARD for Them

Writing fiction today sometimes seems an exercise in stubbornness and an anachronistic gesture that goes against the shrill tenets of the age-that only the present has meaning, that the contemplative life is irrelevant, that only the life of purest sensation is divine, and that the act of giving shape to sensation, of giving a permanence to the present, is somehow an inversion of the life principle itself. But writers of prose are tough, meticulous people, dedicated to a systematic analysis of the life of sensation and of the electronic paradise that threatens to make language itself obsolete. Writers of prose are all historians, dealing with the past. It is the legendary quality of the past we are most interested in, the immediate past, mysterious and profound, that feeds into the future. It is writers who create history.

Today, there is a demand that the past be obliterated. The style of the new decade is accelerated and deathly; all this emphasis upon sensation, upon a life altered by various drugs, is a speeding up of the death. And inherent in the new generation's rejection of the past is a rejection of the future, a rejection of any extended period of time. This is all deathly, an unconscious desire for death, for the end of consciousness. The artists of America must resist the temptation to give up the struggle for consciousness, to go down with the age. It is very tempting for us, this disavowal of intelligence, this sub-religious gesture of surrender to the senses and emotions, to death. Writers of prose and poetry are living in the most stimulating of times today-if only they can survive.

Those of us who are also university teachers can see clearly, in some of our best students, the dangers of the new religion, of the ethic of the unconsciousness: a certain aimlessness, a distrust, a fear of the future that seems to them either forbidding or unimaginable. Many of these students are both older and younger than they should be-older because they have experienced a great deal, younger because the experiences seem to have flowed through them, meaning nothing. It is a mysterious age, the present. It questions all meaning. Writers, trying to make sense of the age, are also creating it, and there is more need than ever for the contemplative life, for an assessment of where we are going and where we have come from. We need to withdraw from the age, to make ourselves detached. The writer of prose is committed to recreating the world through language, and he should not be distracted from this task by even the most attractive of temptations. The opposite of language is silence; silence for human beings is death.

In novels I have written, I have tried to give a shape to certain obsessions of mid-century Americans: a confusion of love and money, of the categories of public and private experience, of a demonic urge I sense all around me, an urge to violence as the answer to all problems, an urge to self-annihilation, suicide, the ultimate experience, and the ultimate surrender. The use of language is all we have to pit against death and silence.