Shirley Hazzard's 2003 National Book Award Acceptance Speech

We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think

We were terribly saddened to hear the news that Shirley Hazzard passed away Monday. We were fortunate to have the chance to publish a collection of her writing, We Need Silence to Find Out What We Think: Selected Essays. In memory of her wonderful life and career, we have excerpted her National Book Award Acceptance speech from 2003 in which she concisely explains the power of the written (and read) word.

There’s a moment to say I am delighted, and I am delighted. I’m delighted to have been in the company of the other nominees tonight who of recent days I’ve heard read from their works and been so impressed by the variety of our feelings and our approaches. There was no uniformity at all in what we brought except the wish to do well by the English language, to find the word that mattered. I honor the people who were with me because I enjoyed so much hearing them read and hearing this large diversity.

I want to say in response to Stephen King that I do not—as I think he a little bit seems to do—regard literature (which he spoke of perhaps in a slightly pejorative way), that is, the novel, poetry, language as written, I don’t regard it as a competition. It is so vast. We have this marvelous language. We are so lucky that we have a huge audience for that language. If we were writing in high Norwegian, we would be writing in a great ancient language, but we would have mostly reindeer for our readers. I’m not sure that that is the ideal outcome. We have this huge language so diverse around the earth that I don’t think giving us a reading list of those who are most read at this moment is much of a satisfaction because we are reading in all the ages, which have been an immense inspiration and love to me and are such an excitement.

I can take one of the ancient poems of our language and feel so excited and moved and even sometimes terrified by it that it seems very immediate to me. I don’t see this as “we should read this or we should read that.” We have mysterious inclinations. We have our own intuitions, our individuality toward what we want to read, and we developed that from childhood. We don’t know why. Nobody can explain it to us.

I think America, especially, is drowning in explanations, and what we need is more questions, not explanations, perhaps because the explanations are not leading us into good places, at least the official ones that I hear.

I’m so grateful for readers, for writers. We are here because we love our language. We are reading and writing from both sides. It draws up all our humanity, and we need our humanity and we need our individuality, our originality. We need them more than we ever did because we are in such a position of power. I don’t mean readers and writers, I mean, in this nation. We should do our best by the language. We mustn’t torture it; we mustn’t diminish it. We have to love it, nurture it, and enjoy it.

Pleasure, that’s what we want from it, the true pleasure. A lot of information comes through pleasure and generosity, and that’s what we have in literature. That’s what we have in fiction. I thank you so much for this award. It’s lovely for me, but I honor every writer who is here and every reader. Thank you.

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