National Book Awards Acceptance Speeches

John Updike, Winner of the 1964 FICTION AWARD for THE CENTAUR

Each of us who claim to be writers should strive, I think, to discover or invent the verbal texture that most closely duplicates the tone of life as it arrives on his nerves. This tone, which induces style, will vary from soul to soul. Glancing upward, one is struck by the dispersion of recent constellations, by how far apart the prose masters of the century-say, Proust and Joyce, Kafka and Hemingway-are from one another. It may be partly an optical illusion, but modern fiction does seem, more than its antecedents, the work of eccentrics. The writer now makes his marks on paper blanker than it has ever been. Man's common store of assumptions has dwindled, and with it the stock of viable artistic conventions. Every generation -- and readers and writers are brothers in this -- inherits a vast attic of machinery that once worked and decorative doodads whose silhouettes no longer sing. We must each of us clear enough space in this attic so we in turn can unpack. Does plot, for example, as commonly understood, mirror Providential notions of spiritual justice and final balance that our hearts seriously doubt? Is the syntactical sentence plastic enough to convey the flux, the blurring, the endless innuendo of experience as we feel it? No aesthetic theory will cover the case; what is needed is an instinctive habit of honesty on the part of the writer. He must, rather athletically, instill his wrists with the refusal to write whatever is lazily assumed, or hastily perceived, or piously hoped. Fiction is a tissue of literal lies that refreshes and informs our sense of actuality. Reality is -- chemically, atomically, biologically -- a fabric of microscopic accuracies. The capture of such accuracies is the surest pleasure a writer receives. Though our ultimate impression of Creation is not that it was achieved by taking pains, perhaps we should, in writing, proceed in the humble faith that, by taking pains to be accurate, we put ourselves on the way toward making something useful and beautiful and, in a word, good.

John Updike Photo: "Laughing at Crane Beach" credit: Dennis Stock